First Man

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First Man

Runtime 138 minutes
PG-13

Who knew? According to this depressing film, nobody in the astronaut program was happy. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling; if they ever make a movie about Lee Harvey Oswald, Gosling is a dead ringer for him) was mourning his infant daughter who had died and it’s almost all he could think about. His wife Janet (Claire Foy) was supportive of his effort, but there’s a scene the night Neil is leaving for his expedition to the moon when she confronts him and asks, “You might not come back, right?” as if this is something that just occurred to her, even though he had been in training for years.

Let’s see, nobody has ever gone to the moon; Neil is about to make the attempt. Three astronauts had just died two years before testing the capsule. And she just realized that there was a chance that he might not return? This really happened the night he is leaving to take the trip? I know that director Damien Chazelle made a movie called La La Land but this scene, if accurate, indicates that Janet had been living in La La Land all the while. That said, I don’t believe the scene for a second.

I found this movie long, depressing and black, projecting very little feeling for the enormous accomplishment. Immensely disappointing are the promised scenes of the moon in IMAX. There are only a few shots of the moonscape and they were made at a quarry in Atlanta.

The special effects of the blastoff and the few scenes inside the space capsule are well done, as is the fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith) in 1967.

While the film shows a few scenes of the astronaut training (one is very good) it doesn’t show nearly enough of what they had to go through. Mostly it’s a film about Neil and Janet and it is long, slow and fails to adequately capture the tension and danger of putting together a try to get to the moon.

There is one iconic picture that everyone remembers about Armstrong’s landing and that’s the one of the American flag on the moon. The filmmakers (and Gosling) didn’t want anything like that in the film apparently because it gives credit to America. But this was an American triumph, not a triumph of an American man. Christopher Columbus could take credit for the discovery of America because he put the whole thing together: the idea (finding a route to India), the financing, the ships, the crew, the voyage; it was a one-man show.

But according to Zack Sharf of IndieWire, at the Venice Film Festival, “Gosling said the moon landing ‘transcended countries and borders’ and the filmmaking team did not want to ruin their film’s subjectivity by making a political statement.”

This is ignorant Hollywood elitist nonsense, but not surprising coming from the lips of an actor. The filmmakers made a political statement by omitting the picture.

Armstrong was an employee. The idea of going to the moon before the end of the ‘60s was fostered by President Kennedy in 1961 and 1962, and did not “transcend countries and borders.” The American taxpayers paid the freight and the American government contributed the science and the hardware. Sure, the movie is about Armstrong, but to eliminate this scene is a huge disrespect that detracts greatly from the film.

But that’s not the sole reason the movie miscarries. It completely fails to provide an iota of a reason why Armstrong was chosen to be the First Man. Gus Grissom was originally tabbed for that role, but he perished.  Chazelle provides no evidence that Armstrong was a standout leader, or that he had accomplished extraordinary tasks, or that he had a compelling personality like John Glynn. Indeed, the movie shows just the opposite — he comes across as parochial, plodding and depressed. Why was Neil Armstrong chosen to be the first man on the moon? Given his bland credentials, why is he the subject of a major movie? Who knows? Maybe, giving Chazelle credit, that’s the point of the movie. If so, I still found it slow and lackluster.

The true heroes of the moon landing were the engineers who figured out how to do it, how to televise it live to the entire world, and how to bring them back safely. That’s a movie I’d like to see.

Tony Medley is an MPAA-accredited film critic. See more reviews at TonyMedley.com.

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