"First Man" premiere

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Movie review: 'First Man' takes giant leap for edgy adaptation of space program

October 11, 2018 - 7:00 am
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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The first collaboration between writer-director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling was the musical hit "La La Land," which garnered 14 Oscar nominations and won six Oscars.

Although "First Man" — a biodrama about astronaut, aerospace engineer, naval aviator, test pilot, and university professor Neil Armstrong, co-produced by Chazelle and Gosling — isn't quite the artistic triumph that the musical was, it's nonetheless a fascinating and admirable drama.

Adapted from the James R. Hansen biography "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong," by Josh Singer, who also scripted "Spotlight" and "The Post," "First Man" is a warts-and-all portrait of Armstrong, a private man living a public life, portrayed by two-time Oscar nominee Gosling as an impassive, laconic, and humorless achiever who doesn't even try to be charismatic.

Armstrong, known for performing his moonwalk on July 22, 1969, died in 2012 at the age of 82.

Chazelle adopts and maintains a subjective point-of-view style of shooting that gives the film a gritty edge and makes it an immersive experience to sit through. 

As the director and the screenplay dig beneath the myth, we never stop noticing how claustrophobic the cockpits are, how insubstantial the supposedly technologically advanced equipment is, how dangerous and frightening and deadly the decade-long Cold War enterprise is, or how outlandishly improbable the best-case scenario — or its opposite — truly was.

"We need to fail down here," Armstrong explains at one point, "so we don't fail up there."

We're acutely aware of the sacrifices that driven people — like Armstrong — have to routinely make in the name of achieving their lofty goals. It's a theme that surfaces throughout Chazelle's arresting works ("Whiplash," "La La Land") and it's central here, as is the family tragedy that Armstrong and his wife, played by Claire Foy from “The Crown,” have to deal with in a movie that is, among other things, about sorrow and stick-to-it-iveness.

The film also delves into the legendary Gemini and Apollo space programs, and how they inform the American character.

Chazelle includes a clip of then President John F. Kennedy providing context by discussing our commitment to the space program, no matter what.

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things," says the president, "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

It's a perspective that also seems to explain the existence of films as serious-minded, ambitious, down-to-earth, and dedicated to their subjects as "First Man" is.

While the film may lack the exuberance and vibrancy of such masterful space epics like "Apollo 13," "The Right Stuff," or the mesmerizing imagery of "2001: A Space Odyssey," it's gripping, visceral, and impressive from takeoff to landing, with Gosling turning in a nuanced, understated performance as the reluctant hero.

So we'll orbit 3 stars out of 4. The space race thriller, "First Man," may not be one giant leap for moviegoers, but it's a heck of a lot more than one small step for anybody.