[Screen It]

"FIRST MAN"
(2018) (Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: An astronaut trains for the potential to be the first man to walk on the moon, all while contending with the perils of such work and the effect that has on his family.
PLOT:
It's the early 1960s and following the cancer-related death of their young daughter, astronaut Neil Armstrong (RYAN GOSLING) and his wife, Janet (CLAIRE FOY), decide he should pursue trying out for NASA's Gemini program. After meeting fellow candidate Elliott See (PATRICK FUGIT) and being interviewed by NASA's Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (KYLE CHANDLER) and Director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center Robert Gilruth (CIARAN HINDS), Neil is accepted into the program and they move to Houston across the street from fellow astronaut Ed White (JASON CLARKE) and his wife, Pat (OLIVIA HAMILTON).

As the wives worry about their husbands, Neil, Ed, and others partake in the training where the ultimate goal is to put a man on the moon. As Neil makes his way from the Gemini program over to the Apollo one where he works alongside the likes of Buzz Aldrin (COREY STOLL), he intensely focuses on the work at hand, all of which has an effect on his family life.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
According to Merriam-Webster, courage is defined as "mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty." And that can range from something seemingly not that significant (in the scope of the universe) such as asking someone far out of your league on a date or stating one's opinion on something controversial knowing full well the likely backlash to literally risking your life to save someone else in some sort of dire circumstance, such as rushing into a burning building to pull someone out.

I think the greatest courage, however, is present when someone does something dangerous and unpredictable that has never been done before. Yes, it can be scary asking someone out, speaking one's mind or performing some heroic deed. But others have done all of that before plenty of times, so anyone behaving in any of the above (and many other) ways knows that and thus can be successfully accomplished again.

That's not to diminish the nervousness, fear and sometimes very real danger, but it takes a special sort of courage to do something for the first time where it was once seemingly believed to be impossible. All of which leads us to humankind's first landing on the moon. Long a dream by many but deemed far too dangerous, too hard and too crazy by even the smartest the world had to offer, it was eventually pulled off on July 20, 1969, after years of calculating, testing and rehearsing.

That monumental event and the people involved in making it happen are detailed in "First Man," a compelling and quite visceral drama showcasing, yes, you guessed it, enough courage to reach our lunar neighbor and back. The film marks the reunion of the star and director of "La La Land," and like that film, I imagine some serious end of the year award love is going to come this picture's way.

As the film opens, we see Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) being fired into orbit in an X-15 rocket that seems the space travel equivalent of a bucking bronco, with the astronaut holding on tight. Bette Davis might have once said (in "All About Eve") "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night," but as visually presented by director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren that could have been paraphrased here to be "a bumpy ride" (and then some).

The director's goal -- while working from Josh Singer's screenplay adaptation of James R. Hansen's 2005 book "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" -- is to put the viewer inside that rocket (and later other craft) right alongside Armstrong to see, hear, feel and overall experience what it must have been like ripping up through the atmosphere in what now looks like a positively primitive aircraft-meets-spacecraft. And when things go wrong upon his descent from more than 200,000 feet up, he shows his smarts and courage to fix the problem.

Upon which he shows his stoicism of handling such an event that then segues to a scene of not him undergoing some subsequent test in a huge machine, but rather his young daughter who we learn has cancer. Upon her death, he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), decide to start anew by going after NASA's Gemini project and they and their sons move to Houston to begin that.

What follows is a chronological look at the people and events that eventually put Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) on the moon. And apparently deciding to portray the uncertainty, family tension and stress, dangers and courage all simultaneously in play, Chazelle nearly never stops the camera from moving, even when in extreme close-up mode and during straight-up drama (rather than just launch, flight, landing and walk on the moon mode).

All of which means that for anyone with any degree of visually induced motion sickness, this will indeed be a bumpy ride. As someone who's somewhat affected by that, I can appreciate what he's going after, but would have preferred a far greater number of static camera shots.

Despite that, it's a compelling and engaging look at the man, the mission and all of those involved in both. Gosling does a good job despite being shackled by Armstrong's real-life (and period appropriate) holding of one's emotional cards close to the vest. Not encumbered by that, Foy is terrific as his wife who goes through the angst and worry without any degree of professional training regarding how to deal with that.

A number of other notable performers inhabit a variety of roles (such as Jason Clarke, Ciarán Hinds, Patrick Fugit, and Kyle Chandler), but due to the nature of the chronological straightforwardness of the storyline and the focus on Armstrong and his wife, many end up a bit shortchanged. But you probably won't notice as you're put right in the middle of tests, launches, flights, and landings to the point that you'll sort of feel like you are (and then, afterward, were) right there.

While it might not be the first film to cover this era of the NASA program, it's certainly the first to create such a realistic and visceral firsthand experience of what it must have been like and a showcase of the courage -- both in space and down on terra firma -- to pull it off. "First Man" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed October 1, 2018 / Posted October 12, 2018


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