In Review

Roughly halfway through “First Man,” the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 astronauts blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in a fiery, thunderous ascent that almost seems to shake the theater.

It’s a powerful scene in a 2-hour, 21-minute film that traces the life of Neil Armstrong from 1961 to his historic first steps on the lunar surface in 1969.

There’s plenty to like in “First Man” besides the the sound and IMAX images. Ryan Gosling is credible as the focused, taciturn Neil Armstrong who survives several harrowing episodes from his early days as an X-15 pilot to guiding Gemini 8 to safety after a malfunction aboard the craft leads to near-disaster. It’s all part of his now-storied career that leads him to commanding the Apollo 11 mission.

Claire Foy is understated but effective as Armstrong’s first wife, chain-smoking Janet Shearon, as the couple navigates a sometime-tense relationship and the death of their young daughter, Karen. While he is packing for the Apollo 11 mission, Janet tells him adamantly that he must tell his two sons exactly where he is going and the risks that are involved.

“What are the chances you’re not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore! So you’re gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!” she says.

Kyle Chandler is strong as Deke Slayton, one of the Mercury program’s original astronauts, and eventually NASA’s first chief of the astronaut office. Look for Lukas Haas, who played the Amish boy Samuel Lapp in “Witness,” as astronaut Michael Collins on the Apollo XI mission. Corey Still is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.

The film gives us unflinching coverage of the 1967 fire that killed the three members of the Apollo I crew during a pre-launch test. Armstrong learns of their deaths in a phone call to the White House where he is attending a reception as an unofficial ambassador for the space program. The movie also includes the ’60s counter-culture protests against the space program.

Director Damien Chazelle wisely includes archival footage of President John F. Kennedy’s speech in which he challenges Americans to go to the moon “not because it is easy, but because it is hard.” He also captures the widespread concern over competition from the Soviet Union during the 20th century “space race.”

Screen writer Josh Singer’s script is based on “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen. Justin Hurwitz’s music, often quiet and hauntingly beautiful, is the perfect complement throughout.

We were impressed with the story, cinematography and detail of “First Man.” (As for detail, we learn that NASA had prepared a carefully worded contingency statement if the astronauts died on the moon.)

On our 1-5 star rating system, we here at Double Gut Shot give “First Man” 4.5 stars. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the moon landing sequence at night at a rock quarry on IMAX 70mm film, and we saw the IMAX version. But a “cheap” ticket would probably be just as enjoyable.

We were even lucky enough get a complimentary commemorative “First Man” patch.



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