October 22, 2018

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The space within

First Man: Gosling, Chazelle paint a tightly focused portrait of moon-landing pioneer Neil Armstrong

An early image in Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man sees a lightly toasted Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, stoically walking away from the fiery crash of a test vehicle. The shot seems to be a deliberate echo of the most iconic still from Philip Kaufman’s 1983 space epic The Right Stuff, in which test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), his glass helmet shattered and scorched, calmly walks from the flaming wreckage of a test plane.

It’s worth noting only because the films are otherwise so very dissimilar, even when they are depicting identical events. Kaufman’s film, adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, was an overt celebration of the brains and balls of the men who pioneered early space travel.

First Man is less a tribute and more of a portrait, more circumspect and tightly focused.

Chazelle himself seems to have fallen from space into this project, given that his previous features — Whiplash and La La Land — are centred on music, as opposed to the music of the spheres.

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An early image in Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man sees a lightly toasted Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, stoically walking away from the fiery crash of a test vehicle. The shot seems to be a deliberate echo of the most iconic still from Philip Kaufman’s 1983 space epic The Right Stuff, in which test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), his glass helmet shattered and scorched, calmly walks from the flaming wreckage of a test plane.

It’s worth noting only because the films are otherwise so very dissimilar, even when they are depicting identical events. Kaufman’s film, adapted from Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, was an overt celebration of the brains and balls of the men who pioneered early space travel.

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle (La La Land).</p>

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man, directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle (La La Land).

First Man is less a tribute and more of a portrait, more circumspect and tightly focused.

Chazelle himself seems to have fallen from space into this project, given that his previous features — Whiplash and La La Land — are centred on music, as opposed to the music of the spheres.

But Chazelle and his La La Land star Gosling, working from a script by Josh Singer (Spotlight), strive to mine the inner life of their subject, since Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has long remained an enigmatic figure. Chazelle goes in under the assumption that, to most of us, Armstrong is a mystery to be solved.

Hence, the film begins in 1961 as Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy of Netflix’s The Queen) cope with the loss of their toddler daughter to cancer. It is a devastating biographical detail Armstrong was loathe to discuss, which provides some clue as to his private nature.

After the tragedy, Armstrong’s engineering acumen, his composure under pressure and his sheer courage mark him for ascendancy in the Apollo space program. Among a group of like-minded men including Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and the gregarious Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), Armstrong maintains an arm’s-length remoteness, presumably born from his pain. In a way, his only real confidante is the steely Janet, who is herself unwilling to occupy the role of the quiet, supportive astronaut’s wife.

The film distinguishes itself from other space epics, such as Ron Howard’s space-program love letter Apollo 13, with Chazelle’s dogged insistence on filming much of the action from Armstrong’s perspective.

Gosling and Luke Winters, as Rick Armstrong, with Claire Foy playing Janet Armstrong in the background.</p>

Gosling and Luke Winters, as Rick Armstrong, with Claire Foy playing Janet Armstrong in the background.

One whole sequence is devoted to the near disastrous Gemini VIII flight, in which the space capsule piloted by Armstrong and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) started to spin uncontrollably. An exterior shot of the spacecraft might have helped the audience understand the nature of the issue, but Chazelle sticks with Armstrong’s perspective, viewing the calamity through a narrow window, to better depict the danger and terror of early space travel.

Puncturing the Right Stuff view of competitive camaraderie among astronauts, we also get glimpses of Armstrong’s strained relationship with his moon-mission partner Aldrin, a guy more suited to the public-relations aspect of the job.

Gosling, usually at his best in more expressive roles, does credible work as the tightly wound Armstrong. Foy makes for an interesting change of pace from the acquiescent domestic goddess usually portrayed in films like this. (To be honest, however, one doesn’t get a hint in the film that Neil and Janet would ultimately divorce.)

Ryan Gosling gives viewers a side of Neil Armstrong that was largely hidden from public view.

Ryan Gosling gives viewers a side of Neil Armstrong that was largely hidden from public view.

Some negative attention has been brought to the film because it does not show Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon.

It is a silly, contrived controversy. For a movie like The Right Stuff, the flag-planting would have been far more appropriate to its tone of macho paean. It’s far more important to understanding Armstrong to show exactly what he planted on the moon in secret. Chazelle made the right call.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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History

Updated on Thursday, October 11, 2018 at 7:05 PM CDT: Fixes posting date

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