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With: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christoher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian D’Arcy James, Corey Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg
Written by: Josh Singer, based on a book by James R. Hansen
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Running Time: 141
Date: 10/12/2018

First Man (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Asking for the Moon

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Best Director Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle returns with First Man, an attempt to tell the story of Neil Armstrong's miraculous moon landing in a more close-up style than did Philip Kaufman's masterful The Right Stuff or Al Reinert's essential documentary For All Mankind. The result yields at least two spectacular scenes, one in which pilot Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) reaches the very edge of the earth's atmosphere in his plane and gazes at the dividing line between life and space, and the second when he reaches the moon.

The rest is a little more uneven. It's a noisy movie, with many shots of rockets and planes rattling and banging from every angle; if the movie wins Oscars for Best Sound or Sound Effects Editing, it will be for the biggest use of sound, and not necessarily the best. It's also a shaky movie, with hand-held cameras used to capture the buffeting of the capsules and cockpits, little realizing that humans rarely see shaking quite this way (our eyes track to keep things still so we're not constantly vomiting). For some reason, hand-held cameras are also used for life on the ground as well; First Man is rarely as lyrically fluid as Chazelle's previous two features, Whiplash or La La Land.

In the role of Neil, Gosling gives a reticent, stoic performance, rarely breaking his hard exterior, except in a subplot involving his young daughter, lost to cancer. Defenders will claim that the real Neil was like that, and that may be true, except that it doesn't make for a very compelling movie character. Perhaps worse is Claire Foy as Neil's wife. She looks perpetually rigid and angry, her jaw jutting and eyes bulging, as if she were enraged to learn that her character was expected to spend the movie staying home and waiting. The rest of the cast comes and goes, introduced quickly or barely at all. Lukas Haas turns up late in the film as the all-important Mike Collins, the third man on the Apollo 11 mission and the one who maintained the orbit around the moon so that Neil and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) could get home, and I'm not sure I ever heard anyone mention his name.

Ultimately, I'm not even sure what the point of First Man really is, other than to provide a visceral, physical experience of the moon landing; it could be a ride at a theme park. Among a sea of white faces, Chazelle occasionally drops in a few black ones sitting at control panels. But this only has the effect of reminding us that black men or women would never have been allowed to fly in one of those capsules. Not to be too politically correct, but in these terrible times, do we really need another celebration of the achievements of white men? This baffling concept is further muddled by the deliberate decision not to include a shot of the planting of the American flag on the moon, as if to make the story more "universal."

Yet, to be honest, all concepts of inequality aside, and speaking in terms of sheer science and biology, this is one of the greatest stories in the history of humankind. That this trip to the moon happened at all is still unbelievable. And with all its flaws, First Man will still be worth seeing for many, just to experience these events in a new way. Whether or not the movie is worth a second viewing, or will have any kind of life past awards season, is another matter.

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