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REVIEW: 'First Man' tells astronaut Neil Armstrong’s story in truly, deeply moving fashion

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When faced with any great void -- the ocean, the desert, or the cosmos -- we humans realize, cosmically speaking, we are but specks of specks. This can lead to a certain sort of introspection, placing ourselves in the true pecking order of the universe and finding ourselves very, very near the back of the line.

Perhaps because of this, we tend to dwell on our surface accomplishments -- i.e., the eight wonders of the world -- as if to point out how much we might still be capable of, even in the face of our ultimate insignificance. In this way, back in 1969, when Neil Armstrong first touched down on the moon, his visage and famous words have lived on in a sort of immortality from that moment forward.

First Man

90 Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg

Director: Damien Chazelle

Rating: PG-13, for thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language

Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes

Despite this measurable accomplishment, for director Damien Chazelle, the challenge in depicting Armstrong on screen is his utter inscrutability. This is a man, who at a news conference before his historic Apollo 11 voyage, showed all the joy and open-eyed wonder of a golem. So on message was he fixated, Chazelle depicts a scene between Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and two young sons where he says goodbye to them, quite possibly for good, by more or less evoking another news conference, taking questions from the boys and answering them in the same, even-toned expressionless manner with which he subjected the press. Simply put, he's a hard nut to crack.

What's extraordinary, then, is the way in which Chazelle, working with screenwriter Josh Singer, based on the book by James R. Hansen, digs into Armstrong's psyche in a way that never feels invasive or untrue to his character, yet lets us in enough to grasp an understanding of his motivations by the end that feels largely organic. He accomplishes this in crescendo with a sort of Rosebud moment, it's true, but not before building up small, subtle details that eventually reverberate into something truly, deeply moving.

He begins with a younger Armstrong in 1961, working as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base. Stricken as he is from the sickness and eventual death of his young daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford), he has little choice but to plunge even further into his work, which is why, when the opportunity to join with the Gemini project with NASA in Houston arises, he jumps at the chance (in typical, deadpan manner, when informed of his receiving the invitation, he simply tells his wife "I got it," and lets it go at that). There, he meets his CO, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler); makes friends with his fellow would-be astronauts, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) and Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke), while barely tolerating the blunt, egocentric Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll); and begins the arduous, highly dangerous training for the eventual Apollo missions.

For a man so closed off from outside interference, Chazelle keeps his camera --largely hand-held to add an element of dangerous immediacy -- in tight on Gosling's face, recording every twitch of his eyelash, or edgy pull of his mouth. The director also makes use of multiple Armstrong POV shots, especially when doing test missions in the capsule. We might not be able to get directly into his head, but we can certainly see things from his vantage point, which eventually yields a kind of friction between our own emotional reaction to what he's experiencing and his utterly downplayed version. After one rough crash during a testing of the landing module, Armstrong doesn't even bother to wipe the grime and blood splatter off his face before going home to his family.

It's a fascinating and oddly effective device, allowing us to experience the claustrophobic terror of being launched into the stratosphere by, as Janet angrily puts it at one point, "boys making models out of balsa wood." If you are of a certain generation, the iconic images of the moon voyage include seeing the exteriors of everything, including the rocket launch, the deploying of the rocket stages, and, of course, Armstrong and Aldrin bouncing along the lunar surface. Chazelle plays many of these moments from the inside out: During one of the early test missions, we almost never leave the cockpit, as it shudders and moans and the pilots frantically switch grubby toggle buttons back and forth in a sort of helpless pantomime.

What Janet says is almost entirely true: Despite NASA's best efforts to appear otherwise, the complexity and difficulty of attempting such a mission leaves the pilots wide open to catastrophe. The most surprising thing about the eventual success of the moon mission is that somehow everything managed to work the way it was supposed to, including the two pilots.

Chazelle cagily doesn't place NASA in a heroic bubble. There are rumblings of the outside world from time to time, images on TV of Vietnam, rising unrest, protests against using so many tax dollars toward a moon mission when there is so much need left on the terra firma of Earth. In one protest scene, we hear part of Gil Scott Heron's searing "Whitey on the Moon," suggesting the grand nobleness NASA keeps attempting to evoke can be reduced to yet another blind urge from the oppressive white male ego. JFK's famous "moon" speech, also factored in, doesn't really suggest otherwise: "... the vows of this nation can only be fulfilled if we in this nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first!"

Before it was ever screened, the film took ridiculous "heat" from certain factions for what they assumed was a downplaying of America's role in the moon landing, but Chazelle's film was never meant to echo The Right Stuff, never meant to be a grandly heroic arc of American know-how. Despite the setting, the justly lauded director is after much finer-ground powder: The emotional consciousness and motivation of a man whose countenance might as well be a lunar surface for all he lets out.

MovieStyle on 10/12/2018

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