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2 reviews, 5 user ratings

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First Man
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by Peter Sobczynski

"One Shot"
5 stars

Anyone planning on making a film about the life and achievements of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, has to acknowledge two potential hurdles large enough to send even the most ambitious filmmakers scurrying away. For one thing, there is the fact that pretty much every potential ticket buyer knows the particulars of the story, or at least the particular of how it turns out. For another, there is the knowledge that the so-called space race that America took part in during the Fifties and Sixties has already spawned a number of exemplary films running the gamut from narrative features like Phillip Kaufman’s genuine epic “The Right Stuff” (1983) and Ron Howard’s exemplary “Apollo 13” (1995) to documentaries like Al Reinart’s “For All Mankind” (1989) and that any new film on the subject would inevitably be compared to them. In other words, Damien Chazzelle probably could have found a slightly easier project to do for his first film since the Oscar-winning musical hit “La La Land” (2016) and no one would have given him any static about it. Instead, has given us “First Man,” an Armstrong biopic based on James R. Hansen’s best-selling biography “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” and not only does he overcome those obstacles, he soars above them as Armstrong himself once did, with a thrilling, surprising and sometimes deeply moving look at the person at the center of one of mankind’s most widely-known and celebrated accomplishments.

That journey was not an easy one in the slightest, as Chazzelle underscores right from the start by starting his film in the early 60 with Neil (Ryan Gosling) test-piloting an X-15 on a mission that starts off as a success but quickly turns into a near-disaster when it turns out that he has gone so far out into the skies that his craft is literally bouncing off of the atmosphere. Thanks to his skills as a pilot and engineer as well as his utter unflappability in a situation that seems tailor-made for all sorts of flapping, he makes it back to the ground—an event that allows Chazzelle to introduce one of his key themes, the fact that for every apparent act of courage and heroism that went into eventually landing on the moon, there just as many in which the astronauts, scientists and technicians stood by helplessly as good people died around them. When a pilot does perish and the others gather together for the funeral, you can practically see the gears cranking in their heads as they try to guess as to which one of them is going to be next.

As a way of differentiating “First Man” from other films of its type, Chazzelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (who also worked on the scripts of such other noted recounting of recent history as “Spotlight” and “The Post”) have elected to eschew the standard biopic approach of presenting a grand and expansive overview of the events in order to explain them better to audiences that might not be 100% up to speed with the details. Instead, they have chosen a close-to-the-bone approach that tries to emulate Armstrong’s own perspective of the events. We don’t get a look into the details of the process that eventually landed him on the list of people to take part in the space program. We don’t here long and labored translations of the highly technical jargon that he hears over various radios (we may not know exactly what they are talking about specifically but we certainly get the gist of it. And when something goes wrong, as during the Gemini 8 mission when an experimental docking maneuver that seems to have gone along perfectly then goes immediately and terrifyingly haywire, we are right there in the capsule with him, being spun around with brutal forces and having no idea about what is happening or how to stop it. The only time that the scope really widens is for a montage, set to a recitation of Gil Scott-Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon,” illustrating that not everyone thought that the mission to the money was a good use of money, resources and lives.

The film follows the key moments of the space program during this time—the intense rivalry between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to accomplish things in space first, the small incremental triumphs that slowly help to make the dream of walking on the moon into reality and the tragedies, such as the disaster that befell the crew of Apollo 1 during a preflight test—with the quieter moments of Neil and wife Jan (Claire Foy) trying to deal with the increasingly heavy burdens being put on their shoulders. In many ways, Jan has an even greater burden to bear than her husband—while he has more or less managed to compartmentalize everything (aside from the memory of the young daughter that he and Jan lost to cancer), Jan has to put up with the usual pressures of being a wife and mother, the realization that NASA, for all their talk of procedures and protocols, are essentially making things up as the go along and the inescapable fact that when her husband leaves in the morning to go to work, there is distinct possibility that he may never come home. This fundamental difference between Neil and Jan leads to a number of quietly powerful scenes as well as one of its most unexpectedly funny moments—the night before he is to leave to prepare for the moon shot, Jan insists that Neil talk to his two sons about the possibility that he could be killed and he responds to their questions as if he were at just another press conference. Like the rest of the film, this potentially mawkish scene skips the potential melodrama and is all the more effective for it. More importantly, when the film does make its one overtly sentimental move during the climax on the moon, it works because by underplaying things elsewhere, it has truly managed to earn that moment.

At first glance, the notion of casting Ryan Gosling as a handsome, taciturn hero for the ages sounds more like self-parody than anything else but his performance her is as good as anything he has done in his career to date. Watching him as he calmly tries to understand and control situations that could have lethal effect in just a few seconds, he is so convincing that it gives the film a documentary-like feel at certain moments. At the same time, his Armstrong is not some kind of robot as we get a sense of the torments that he has experienced though his life, especially in the rare moment when he allows himself a few seconds to weep or rage or feel frustration and fear over what is going on. As Jan, Claire Foy is just as memorable in a role that could have easily just been nothing, finding the fire and humanity in the woman that you didn’t’t glimpse in the puff-piece magazine articles back in the day. The film has also been blessed with a knockout supporting cast that includes top-notch work from the likes of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Ethan Embry, Lukas Haas, Ciaran Hinds and, best of all, Corey Stoll, who steals all of his scenes as Buzz Aldrin, whose naked ambition and overly blunt attitude earns him the enmity of his fellow aspiring astronauts but who proves to be far more adept at dealing with the press than Armstrong.

The one aspect of “First Man” that I haven’t really talked about yet is the one that most people are probably interested in—the film’s depiction of the historic first manned flight to the moon. Shot entirely without the use of green screen technology and with IMAX cameras, the sequence takes the familiar archival footage that we have seen before and recreates with a startling degree of accuracy. Again, as the scenes are shot from Neil’s singular physical and emotional perspective, there may not be the big and heavily orchestrated money shot that might have been found in another take on the story. Instead, we get to experience the kind of thing that helped drive the space program to the moon in the first place—an actual sense of wonder and accomplishment over what he and so many others, living and dead, have worked towards for so long. It is a genuinely spectacular sequence to watch and if you happen to have an IMAX theater near you that is showing the film (especially if it is true IMAX), it really is the only way to see and is well worth the ticket price upgrade.

In the end, “First Man” more than clears those two hurdles I mentioned earlier on—it renders its familiar story in a manner that should leave most viewers absolutely spellbound and while I cannot say for sure where I would rank it in context with “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13” quite yet, it definitely belongs on the shelf with them. Frankly, the only obstacle it has to overcome now is the rattlings, mostly from those who have not seen it, of those upset that the film doesn’t illustrate the planting of the American flag on the moon. This, not surprisingly, turns out to be a lot of garbage as well as there are plenty of flags on display throughout the film—even on the moon—and no one could possibly come away from it with the delusion that it is somehow un-American. Instead, Chazelle is trying to underscore how it is an accomplishment for all of mankind while at the same time observing the events from Armstrong’s personal perspective. If all you are looking for in a film is an explicit flag planting to help you remember that America is great, then perhaps “First Man” is not the movie for you. However, if you are looking for a powerful and stirring work that constantly surprises despite the familiar nature of the events depicted and includes some of the most stunning visuals to come along in quite some time, then it is definitely one not to miss.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31285&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/11/18 17:59:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/13/19 Edler Script is a dud. Primary story is the intensely stressful marital life of the Armstrongs. 3 stars
1/23/19 Langano Decent film, thought it lacked energy. 3 stars
12/24/18 Cryptic Not bad, but a little boring in places 3 stars
10/14/18 Bob Dog Oddball melodramatic perspective worth seeing AFTER "In The Shadow Of The Moon". 3 stars
10/13/18 MORRIS CAMPBELL a good film solid acting and visuals 4 stars
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Directed by
  Damien Chazelle

Written by
  Josh Singer

  Ryan Gosling

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