The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


First Man

There have been many movies about America's space program. None of them have been like First Man. Director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) and writer Josh Singer (Spotlight) have crafted a unique drama that looks at the moon landing -- often literally -- through the eyes of Neil Armstrong. This is a deeply personal story that focuses on one man rather than on the entire scope of the space race. In doing so, it celebrates the heroism and triumph of our country's astronauts in a way we haven't quite seen before.

Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong, and the film follows him from the time he submits his NASA application to his experience becoming the first man to set foot on the surface of the moon. Chazelle makes the bold, effective choice to put the viewer in Armstrong's place by shooting things from his POV during the various training sessions and space missions he embarks upon. This is especially powerful during a lift-off sequence, where he looks out the window and sees pieces of the tower passing by, then the blue of the sky, then the blackness of space. The technique drives home the enormity of the feat.

The reason for this choice is that First Man is, at its core, about death. As the picture opens, Armstrong and wife Janet (Claire Foy) mourn the passing of their young daughter. This is the event that spurs him to start training for NASA. Yes, he realizes that it's an opportunity with historic implications. At the same time, we intuit that he feels the need to heal his grief by accomplishing something significant, almost as though he's channeling all his sadness into a constructive act.

Armstrong is also shown registering the multiple deaths of colleagues, including the Apollo 1 crew, who perish in a cabin fire during a launch rehearsal. Whereas many films about the space program have lead characters who are driven and confident, First Man has one who's more reticent. Constantly hanging over Armstrong's head is the fact that he, too, could die. That adds tension to the moon landing. We all know the mission was a success. He doesn't know that in the movie, so as the lander makes its shaky descent, a wave of fear starts to wash over him.

The death theme pays off in a very touching way once Armstrong is on the moon's surface. Gosling carefully lays the groundwork in his performance, ensuring that the emotional payoff hits us on a deep level. Some might gripe that First Man opts not to take the overtly victorious tone most true stories about the space program do, but the intimate approach proves to be victorious and patriotic in a fresh way, giving the film a stunning impact.

One of the hazards of movies about astronauts is including the cliche of the WWBH -- Worried Wife Back Home. First Man avoids this by providing Janet with a full arc of her own. She, too, is impacted by a fear of death. Losing a daughter was bad enough; the thought of additionally losing a husband is unbearable. Her manner of coping is to shield their two boys from understanding the potential outcome, until she can no longer take it. Claire Foy does remarkable work, showing how Janet's anxiety slowly eats away at her.

Chazelle employs a nice minimalist style with First Man. Scenes in space and on the moon don't go overboard on FX. They show only what's essential to creating a celestial atmosphere. Closeups of Armstrong's eyes are intercut with closeups of equipment, knobs, and meters within the capsule, putting us in his seat. Perhaps more than in any other movie ever, you gain an understanding of what it must have been like to blast off into space.

Although death looms over the story, First Man is never depressing. In fact, it's an inspiring work that reminds us of the immense risk taken by Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts. They knew there was substantial danger in what they were doing, yet decided the rewards outweighed it. The film is an admiring tribute to their bravery when the odds were against them.

( out of four)

First Man is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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