December 11, 2018

“First Man”

Beyond the Green Cheese

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Director Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” a biographical drama recounting the personal and public details leading up to Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the Moon, is exhilarating and informative. You come away realizing how great and difficult an achievement it was…how we just barely had enough knowledge and the right equipment to undertake such a mission. Think Columbus and those three tiny ships, perilously bobbing all across the Atlantic. Doubtless, a good deal of luck also factors into the endeavor.

However, while duly acknowledging the phenomenal accomplishment I was lucky enough to witness in my lifetime, I felt a little guilty, maybe unpatriotic, for otherwise not loving this movie. In all fairness, there’s something afoot in Mr. Chazelle’s interpretation of James R. Hansen’s book, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”…something sullen and fatalistic, almost Ayn Randish, about the tug-of-war that resides between duty to self and obligation to humankind. It is a tad dark for a genre usually Hollywoodized and full of glittering pinwheels.

 

Setting the stage for the no-nonsense account, a good deal of the exposition informs of a personal tragedy that befell the astronaut a few years before the gloriously heralded moonshot. It impacted him the rest of his life. Hence was recalled my mom’s always inversely related aphorism, “Life isn’t all cream and peaches.” Upping the serious quotient, this isn’t just a film about human courage and the wonder of exploration. The somber and the reflective intertwine and ask: In the entirety of the life experience, what’s truly important?

 

Ryan Gosling, a master at suggesting a deep undercurrent, embodies the most famous flyboy since Lindbergh with notable aplomb. In his thespic ministrations, Armstrong is at once a Boy Scout and an iconoclast whose devotion to science over politics, pomp and circumstance distinguished him as a much more informing figure than his space exploits alone would indicate. Take that a step further and the idealist in you is wont to put forth that, given the right social temperature and pressure, there is a hero lurking in just about all of us.

 

It’s an interesting, rather philosophical take, and gets you thinking just what the purpose and responsibility of the biographical account is. But if you’re old enough to remember what you were doing when the eagle landed, just as you know exactly where you were when President Kennedy was assassinated, there is a memorable, visceral feel here. We wait for the moment to murmur “…one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and pat ourselves on the back.

 

We joyfully muse, but with a bit of inherent terror: Look what our tribe has wrought. What other great things are we capable of if, as JFK encouraged, we choose to do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard? All of which uncomfortably brings our attention to the current vice grip of greed and anti-intellectualism in America that not only trashes the Founding Fathers, the Constitution and common decency, but advocates instead a return to the rule of the jungle. Almost worse, complicit disciples smirk in glee at the Philistine lever of power they’ve suddenly been handed by a leader who hardly hides his disdain for them.

 

Thus, just being reminded of the moralists, altruists, optimists and generally good people dedicated to leaving this planet a slightly better place than how they found it is in itself a reason to see “First Man.” Call it a refresher course in what it means to be a mensch… ennobled by our harmony rather than divided by our basest instincts. Complementing this subtextual message in diametrically artful style, the gizmo & gadget aspect of the adventure is a techno-geek’s fantasy.

 

It’s about this algorithm or that, stuff way above my pay grade and manna to the pocket protector set. But the equations come alive as we experience the shake, rattle and roll of the spacecraft that now seems just one invention up from putting a human in a can above a giant Roman candle. Adding perspective, these intrepid adventurers are counterpoised by domestic consequences back on terra firma, the widow’s walk architecturally downgraded from atop the majestic seaside house to the front stoop of cookie cutter ranch homes in suburban Houston.

 

In the old days, biopics were all cut from the same stencil: Just plug in the personage, glamorize, and make sure there’s a great woman behind the great man, or vice versa if we’re talking Greer Garson’s “Madame Curie” (1943) and shamefully too few others. Here, of course, the contemporary, realistic mode is employed. But more importantly, it is ethically significant that, during our current epidemic of official lying and even at the cost of traditional entertainment values, in “First Man” the truth comes first.

“First Man,” rated PG-13, is a Universal Pictures release directed by Damien Chazelle and stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Jason Clarke. Running time: 141 minutes

 

 

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