MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
I am old enough to remember the night that the Apollo 11 crew landed on the moon. It was a moment of incredible joy and astonishment that brought the world together. When I was a boy, I watched earlier rocket launches broadcast live on television, including John Glenn’s orbit around the earth. I built plastic models of spacecraft and read books about NASA and the wonderful adventure of space travel. As I grew older, films such as 1983’s The Right Stuff, the 1998 HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon and 2016’s Hidden Figures evoked wonder and awe, as teams of scientists, mathematicians and astronauts worked together to enter a new frontier.
Neil Armstrong (Gosling), born in Wapakoneta, Ohio, is considered a local hero. I decided to go for broke and seek out an IMAX theater to view First Man, Damien Chazelle’s version of space travel. Since Chazelle was the wunderkind behind 2016’s tuneful La La Land, I was ready to be dazzled.
Imagine my dismay when First Man turned out to be 138 minutes of headache-inducing, grief-ridden, anxiety-driven drama. To its credit, the film shows the emotional sacrifice of Janet Armstrong (Foy), who has to keep the family together while her husband leaves for missions in which his return is not an ironclad guarantee. Had the film been able to share these feelings alongside of excitement and joy, this movie would have really been something, since its blending of documentary footage and CGI is flawless.
But First Man is a downer from start to finish, beginning with a scary sequence of Chuck Yeager (Matthew Glave) breaking the sound barrier and almost losing his life. The next chapter of the movie shows the Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter Karen (Lucy Brooke Stafford) dying of cancer; this loss will follow the Armstrongs throughout the entire film. As Neil becomes a member of the Gemini space program (consistently pronounced “Gem-uh-nee” for some reason) and then the Apollo mission, the astronauts are shoved into small vehicles, subjected to tremendous shaking and rolling, and we go with them. Whenever the movie leaves the space program, the filmmakers seem hellbent on keeping everything as claustrophobic as possible, from never-ending closeups (with handheld cameras that refuse to move out) and scenes in the dark-paneled Armstrong home (the most depressing house not featured in a horror movie). Making it all the way through First Man was an ordeal.
The landing on the moon sequence was just okay (and, contrary to rumors, the film shows an American flag standing upright) but wisely includes the audio recording of Neil Armstrong saying his famous words. Hearing his voice was inspiring, for not only did it remind me of his wisdom in the moment, but it meant that the movie was close to ending. One small step out the door, one giant leap into the sunshine outside.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Three halos: A downbeat presentation of space travel, well-acted and yet irritatingly filmed.
One pitchfork: Occasional PG-13 swearing, constant dread and peril.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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