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Reel Talk: ‘First Man’

October 12, 2018

Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,” “La La Land”), reunites with Ryan Gosling in “First Man,” the story of Neil Armstrong. While almost everyone in the world knows or, like me, even recalls the moon landing and poignant words while making history, most do not know the entire story — his tragic life and the failed missions before July 1969. “First Man” takes us on this nearly 10-year journey, allowing us into Armstrong’s private life and how this emotionally broken man made history in spite of it all.

We meet Armstrong in 1961 as a test pilot, skyrocketing out of the Earth’s atmosphere and back again as he narrowly escapes crashing into the peaks of mountains before skidding for miles in the Mojave Desert to a halt as he calmly radios in, “I’m down.” This, of course, elicits laughter from the audience, but this is just the first of many harrowing and stressful situations of the cool-as-a-cucumber pilot and astronaut.

What we quickly learn next is that his toddler daughter has a brain tumor. Her tragic death will forever change his emotional connection and fortitude. As the family moves on, with an older son and a new one on the way, Armstrong reaches for new accomplishments with NASA. He buries his feelings deep within, never addressing the elephant in the room, and plunges into his work becoming physically and emotionally absent from his wife and two sons.

The story bounces back and forth over the next several years from Armstrong’s personal life to the missions with which he is involved: the Gemini projects and then finally Apollo. The personal scenes are quickly paced, only portraying short pieces of their lives. We do understand Janet’s (Claire Foy) frustration and devotion, and get a glimpse into Armstrong’s guarded interactions with well-meaning colleagues attempting to be friends.

Armstrong’s matter-of-fact personality is either very odd, or he is emotionally shut down because of the tragedy of his daughter as well as the many deaths of his co-workers. This is never really clear, and perhaps it is meant to allow you to draw your own conclusions about this man.

The film, from a technical perspective, is perfection. Chazelle draws you into the cockpit of the shuttles allowing you to feel the dizzying, confusing and breathtaking situations. He shuts us into these small spaces, eliciting a feeling of oxygen deprivation using extreme close-ups and camera angles filling the screen. These scenes, unlike the personal interactions, feel as if they take place in real time, not fast-forwarding in any way.

It might be the closest most of us get to being in an astronaut’s shoes ... or should I say “boots.” And there’s a documentary, hand-held camera feel to the scenes in the shuttles, adding a layer of reality and timeliness to the film.

The technical perfection doesn’t stop with the cinematography. It is an example of precise balance in time, color and sound or lack thereof. Sound, music and silence are just as important in this film as the acting and camera work. Whether it’s background music or shockingly deafening silence, sound accentuates each and every scene. Even hearing the astronaut’s amplified, deep inhalations and exhalations, inadvertently forces you to match that rhythm, completely syncing you with the characters in the film.

We feel we are right there with Armstrong or Aldrin. We are pulled into the whir of the now-antiquated control board which is abruptly cut short as Armstrong opens the hatch to take in the enormity of the moonscape. Not a sound can be heard, and you are there with him, in a black and white vacuum, feeling small and in awe of what lies ahead.

Gosling shines as the reserved, emotionally broken and guarded American hero. He creates the man who changed history but did so with tunnel vision. It’s a complex and subdued role of great importance, one that requires subtlety and skill. While Gosling expertly portrays Armstrong, it is Foy’s portrayal as his wife, Janet, that shines. She’s strong, independent and understanding, yet she’s also broken and in need of her husband’s absent strength and love.

Unfortunately, Armstrong’s personality is rather flat, and it is Aldrin (Corey Stoll) who enjoys the limelight and has a sense of humor, something the story truly needs.

“First Man” gives us all the back stories of the lives lost during the race to the moon. There are political statements, small pieces of information shared, opening our eyes to the past’s turmoil. It is a spectacular feat in retelling history and the journey of getting to the moon. We learn of the men who paved that path, some by laying down their own lives to make it possible.

While the story is an important one, and this story starts strong — it lacks an emotional connection, but this could be the point. Endings can make or break a film, and “First Man” had the perfect ending to connect us emotionally…until it added just one more scene.

3½ stars

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