October 25, 2018 – Neil Armstrong, the hero who first set foot on the moon, is at the center of this powerful docudrama about the man and his family, emphasizing his emotional states, a death in the family, and the dangers of space travel.
The film, based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen, opens with Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling of “La La Land”) almost losing control of an experimental X-15 rocket plane after it skips off the top of the earth's atmosphere. He is criticized for the flight, but it is also noted that he was cool under pressure and managed to safely land a craft that glides like a brick.
Armstrong is so buttoned up that he very seldom shows emotion, but Gosling, in a fine performance, has the acting chops to show us just enough of what is going on under that seemingly unflappable exterior. Armstrong's long-suffering wife, Janet (played by Claire Foy of “Breathe”) is more outgoing and sometimes loses patience with her husband.
At the center of this story is Armstrong's emotional state, particularly after his young daughter, Karen, dies of cancer. In one scene, Armstrong withdraws from a party when he sees a young girl who reminds him of Karen. A friend tries to comfort him, but he refuses to be comforted. He insists on being alone and dealing with his feelings in his own way. In another scene, Armstrong, about as alone one can possibly be, leaves a tribute to Karen in a place about as remote and desolate as possible.
Yet, despite these raw emotional wounds, he is cool under pressure, frequently performing near miracles in the clutch, the perfect man to fly relatively untested vehicles to places nobody has ever navigated before. In this movie, the danger of space travel is front and center. Noise and chaos surround Armstrong as unexpected malfunctions nearly kill him and his crew mate in a wild Gemini Mission docking maneuver, but somehow, he manages to save the day.
Armstrong's anger boils to the surface now and then when he is confronted with foolish questions by politicians, or when others try to intrude into his personal emotional space. The movie tries to connect Armstrong's willingness to put himself into danger with his pain over the death of his daughter. That connection never quite works, but it doesn't really have to. I am just willing to accept the fact that Neil Armstrong was a very brave man. He believed in the worth of the Apollo mission goals.
One of the best scenes in the movie comes when Janet forces Neil to confront his own sons and admit to them that he might not come back from space. He clearly wanted to leave without having that talk, but he finally admits to his children that he might die on the Apollo 11 flight. Typically, he is outwardly calm while discussing the possibility of his own demise.
The special effects depicting space travel in this movie are loud, violent and claustrophobic, making the dangers of space travel seem more personal. Most movies about space travel show rocket launches, dockings and landings from a distance, making it all seem larger than life, majestic, elegant, controlled, an adventure. This movie makes it seem more like the dangerous, desperate voyages of the ancient explorers, setting off for new worlds across vast and dangerous oceans in flimsy vessels.
Besides the fine performances by Gosling and Foy, there is also a fine performance by Jason Clarke as astronaut Ed White, a close friend of Armstrong's. Corey Stoll, playing astronaut Buzz Aldrin, provides some humor to an otherwise heavy story. The rest of the supporting cast is also solid. Director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash” and “La La Land”) deftly weaves the various threads of this story together on screen. This film rates an A.
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