FIRST MAN: What I recall the most about astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), aside from his first words spoken on the moon, is how he completely disappeared from the public eye despite being the most revered American hero since Charles Lindbergh. Adapted from James R. Hansen’s book, Josh Singer’s screenplay is a personal character study of a very private man thrust into the limelight by both tragedy and his own taciturn professionalism. Gosling’s (LA LA LAND) minimalism is extremely well-suited for the role of the introspective explorer whose infrequent, almost fleeting, glimpses into his deeply buried pain make those scenes where it’s briefly exposed more emotionally charged. Drawing him out of his shell is his wife Janet (Claire Foy) who before his Apollo 11 mission insists that he talk with his sons (Connor Blodgett, Luke Winter) for what could be the last time. Theirs is portrayed as a layered relationship that’s actually the most interesting storyline throughout the movie. Most of the other characters in the work are in Armstrong’s world and just living in it with the exception of the subplot about his friendship with ill-fated astronaut Ed White (Jason Clarke). Technically, the production quality of the film is consistently excellent although it’s always at the service of the narrative. The clarity of sound during the flight sequences where space crafts shake violently when bouncing off the Earth’s atmosphere are on a high level with last summer’s DUNKIRK (2017). Nathan Crowley’s production design ably conveys the claustrophobic feeling of being in a cramped capsule while Linus Sandgren’s cinematography captures the beauty and peril of outer space as well as the utter desolation of the lunar landscape. Even if the movie’s bloat and its’ desire to linger over a few shots too long keeps it from being a really superior film, it’s an accurate, chronological depiction of how America felt at a time when the Vietnam War divided us and why an unselfish, non-pretentious, unassuming engineer masking his own personal pain and torment was so very right for the job. CRITIC’S GRADE: B
CLOSING CREDITS: An excellent companion piece to this movie is director/writer Philip Kaufman’s THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) which is an offbeat chronicle about the birth of America’s space program and the first seven Mercury astronauts. Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book, much of the screenplay is wrapped around test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) and his successful quest to break the sound barrier. Except for the pilots, most of the characters are rather cartoonish including President Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffatt) who’s depicted as a real dope. The space flight sequences are thrillingly realistic with some genuinely exhilarating moments. The movie won four Academy Awards for Best Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing and Bill Conti’s (ROCKY) Original Music Score. Watch for the real-life Chuck Yeager who plays a bartender in a desert outpost watering hole.