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Movie review: Ryan Gosling flies high in ‘First Man’

October 13, 2018

Neil Armstrong set foot on the face of the moon on July 20, 1969. It was likened to Columbus discovering the New World, an opening to the heavens, a “giant leap” for mankind.

And yet, nearly 50 years later, it is not exactly a top-of-mind remembrance. The science, engineering and determination required to get him there were amazing. But now it all seems somewhat ho-hum. Yeah, we got to the moon. And then what?

Damien Chazelle’s new film “First Man,” starring Ryan Gosling as the astronaut, reaches back to the early days of the American space program when the watchword was failure. The Soviets were kicking our butts in space, but by God, we were going to beat them to the moon. President Kennedy promised it in 1961.

If you are looking for wall-to-wall testosterone-fueled heroics or nail-biting space adventures, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a well-acted character study, this is your film. Gosling is excellent as Armstrong, as is Claire Foy (“The Crown”) as his wife, Janet.

Armstrong flew dozens of combat missions during the Korean War, was a test pilot in California, flying the X-15 and other atmosphere-defying super-jets, and joined NASA as an Astronaut in 1962 as part of the Gemini program, the forerunner to the Apollo moon missions.

There are some gripping moments in “First Man” – training-gone-wrong, the sweaty claustrophobia of being strapped on top of a rocket, the super-shaky sensation during liftoff. You get the astronauts’ point of view as they reach for the sky, and the clang and clicks of all the metal and technology. But this is mostly a human, Earth-bound saga. Screenwriter Josh Singer adapted the story from the 2005 book by James R. Hansen (who interviewed Armstrong for more than 50 hours).

Gosling portrays Armstrong as a quiet, humble soul, who, despite his success and fame, possessed very little ego. Chazelle and Gosling collaborated on the acclaimed “La La Land” in 2016, and once again it’s a happy marriage between director and star, as Gosling’s performance rises above the less stirring aspects of the script. Gosling conveys Armstrong’s internal angst in highly effective ways.

The great tragedy of Neil and Janet’s marriage was the loss of their daughter Karen, from a brain tumor, when she was 2 years old. It is the subtext that runs throughout the narrative, and, according to the film, had much more impact on Armstrong than conquering the heavens.

We don’t get to know too many others at NASA. You will learn much more about them in films such as Philip Kaufman’s “The Right Stuff” and Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13.” The likes of Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), Gene Kranz (Ciaran Hinds), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are on hand, but in “First Man,” they serve more as background noise.

For some reason Chazelle decided to make most of the supporting characters nameless and sketchy. It allows us to see the world from Armstrong’s perspective, but we would be much more invested in these characters if we really knew who they were, especially when tragedy strikes.

On the upside, there are some interesting slices of history, with the voices of Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace covering the space race, and a chilling reading of the prepared government statement about the doomed astronauts had the moon mission failed.

Armstrong, who died in 2012, shunned the limelight. He was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, then moved all over the state with his family, settling in his post-NASA years outside of Cincinnati. (What’s in the water in Ohio? It gave us the Wright brothers, John Glenn and Armstrong.)

According to Hansen’s book, Armstrong was chosen to be the first human on the moon because he epitomized calm and confidence. Despite rumors that his famous, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” line was created by NASA’s PR team, it actually came from the man himself.

Armstrong was humble, quiet and fiercely focused. If nothing else, he would appreciate the dignity and strength wrapped in Gosling’s performance.

Rated PG-13 for some mature thematic elements involving peril, and brief strong language. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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