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Small steps and giant leaps – ‘First Man’

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There are some stories that should be told over and over again. These are the stories that are a part of the fabric of who we are as a society, stories that represent the pinnacle of human capability in a tangible, visceral way.

The story of the moon landing is one such story. No matter how often the story is told and retold, no matter how many times it is referenced directly or obliquely in popular culture, it isn’t enough. It will never be enough. It’s a story we should keep telling with every increase in our capability to tell it.

“First Man” – directed by Damien Chazelle and adapted by Josh Singer from James R. Hansen’s “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” – stars Ryan Gosling as that titular astronaut and relates his story as he walks the path that inexorably draws him toward space. It’s a portrait of the quiet aptitude and stoic readiness that made Neil Armstrong an ideal candidate for this leap into the unknown; it also examines the impacts of this journey (positive and negative alike) on those around him – particularly his family and his NASA compatriots.

In 1961, Neil Armstrong (Gosling) is a civilian test pilot for NASA. He and his wife Janet (Claire Foy, “Unsane”) have a daughter dealing with – and eventually dying from – a brain tumor. In the aftermath of the tragic loss, Armstrong seeks something more, leading him to apply to NASA’s astronaut program. When he’s accepted, he and Janet and their two boys move to Houston.

It’s there that he befriends some of his astronaut classmates – primarily Elliott See (Patrick Fugit, “Alex & The List”) and Ed White (Jason Clarke, “Winchester”) – and begins training to participate in the Gemini missions that will in turn lead to the Apollo missions that are intended to culminate in landing a man on the moon. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler, “Game Night”) is in charge of pushing the missions forward, always with an eye on that primary goal.

As the missions progress and the astronauts celebrate their successes and mourn their sometimes-tragic failures (including the infamous accident during tests for Apollo 1 that resulted in the deaths of White, Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado”) and Roger Chafee (Cory Michael Smith, TV’s “Gotham”), Armstrong slowly begins to pull away from his wife and kids. Janet is left to struggle with her own fears and doubts about what her husband is doing and whether it’s worth it, but all on her own; she’s expected to keep a brave face in front of her husband, her kids, her friends and, of course, the cameras. The ever-present cameras.

When the time comes, Apollo 11 is launched, with Armstrong as mission commander and pilots Michael Collins (Lukas Haas, “Frank and Ava”) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll, “The Seagull”) onboard. What follows is, quite simply, among the greatest singular achievements in the history of humanity. Armstrong became the first human being to step onto a world that was not our own.

The degree of difficulty inherent to making a movie about this kind of story, a story whose cultural import means that everyone more or less knows how it ends. Finding ways to elicit moments of real drama and true tension is tough, because there’s not a ton of wiggle room when it comes to a narrative so well-documented.

And yet, it’s important that we try. One could argue that it’s an odd choice for Chezelle to tackle after “La La Land,” a good and successful movie that could not be more unlike this one. Or one could argue that it’s actually the PERFECT choice. Here’s the thing – both are right. It is weird that Chezelle goes “full prestige biopic” directly after “critically beloved musical,” but he’s a talented enough filmmaker that it works. His visual style and overall aesthetic translate wonderfully, finding a deft balance between the sweeping breadth of Armstrong’s mission and the insularity of his inner life.

Gosling is asked to do a lot with a little as Armstrong; the combination of era and occupation means that a man like that would have to exude quiet capability and be decidedly limited in terms of emotional expression. That means stoicism and silence, with only occasional glimpses of cracks in the walls. It’s when those cracks appear that we see just how excellent a performance Gosling is giving. Foy is exceptional as well, with Janet providing a foundational counterpoint to Armstrong at home while never once devolving into wet blanket two-dimensionality. Even when neither of them is physically expressing their feelings, those feelings permeate every inch of every exchange.

The supporting cast is dynamite, even if there is a bit of interchangeability to them. Clarke is great, as is Fugit. Stoll livens things up but giving a bit of an alpha male a-hole vibe to Buzz Aldrin. Chandler is his usual low-key wonderful self. And there’s a great assortment of players – Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, Ethan Embry as Pete Conrad and Christopher Abbott as Dave Scott among many others – bringing the rest of the astronauts to life.

Again, this is a story you undoubtedly already know. Most people do. But if we don’t keep remembering and retelling it, that won’t always be true. And knowing this story remains as important as it ever was. It is a story of a man … and mankind. It is the story of what kind of people are willing to attempt – and achieve – the seemingly impossible. And it is – and this is important – a very good movie.

“First Man” is a film built from small steps and giant leaps … and that’s exactly as it should be.

[5 out of 5]

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