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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Oct 31, 2018

First Man Movie Review: After Watching This Film, You Won’t Look At The Moon The Same Way Again

‘FIRST MAN’ is Damien Chazelle’s 3rd movie after “Whiplash” (a drama about a student and his teacher for which JK Simmons won a best supporting actor Oscar) and “La La Land” (a musical for which he won Oscar best director and Emma Stone won best actress). There have been films about the moon landing before, like the TV movie “Apollo 11”, the mini-series “From the Earth to the Moon”, and the documentary “The Other Side of the Moon”, but this is the first solo biopic on Neil Armstrong.

The film is not really an account of him as an adulated American Hero but about Neil, the introverted man who hardly speaks or shows his emotions. Gosling gives a very well modulated portrayal of Neil who is emotionally restrained, almost to a fault, that his wife confronts him about it just before his flight to the moon, forcing him to talk to their two sons. It’s only once that we see him losing control, when his only daughter die due to the big C, and Gosling really gives a touching performance in that scene of a man grieving for a lost child.

The film also shows what the first man on the moon went through while preparing for one of the most iconic historic events in history you’d wonder why it took almost 50 years before a biopic is made on him. Scripted by Josh Singer (who won the Oscar for “Spotlight”), maybe because this one is based on the book by James Hansen that came out in 2005.

The movie spans the entire decade of the 60s, starting in 1961 when Neil (Ryan Gosling, who was also Chazelle’s lead actor in “La La Land”) was an aeronautics engineer and test pilot before being chosen as one of the civilians selected by NASA to be trained as an astronaut. In 1969, he finally makes it to the moon on July 21 (at about the same time that Gloria Diaz became the first Pinay Miss Universe).

But before that, we see Neil’s rigorous training sessions, like riding the “vomit comet”, and personal struggles, with many of his colleagues sacrificing their lives to make that “giant leap for mankind.” This includes Elliot See (Patrick Fugit of “Almost Famous”), another civilian who was recruited with him at the same time by NASA.

Even more tragic is the death of Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Roger Chaffee (Cory Smith) and Edward White (Jason Clarke) who perished in a fire during a test run. The public is dazzled by the heroic mission of Neil with co-astronauts Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas) but this movie shows the scary things that they have to go through before they landed on the moon as there were no precedents to the dangers that they were then facing.

Providing the emotional counter balance to Ryan’s stoic portrayal is Claire Foy as his wife Janet. The feelings that Ryan avoids, all the fear, anger, pain, frustration and hopelessness, Claire showcases in full force we won’t be surprised if she’d get nominated. (And she might also be nominated for her coming movie, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”). Foy has a very poignant moment after the death of Edward White (their personal friend and neighbor) when she sees his widow, Pat (Olivia Hamilton), standing frozen on their driveway as she stares at the open trunk of their car.

But it’s still Ryan who keeps the narrative on the right course, reinforcing his compelling performance as a quiet, inscrutable man with so much grace, especially in the wordless scenes where he is clearly inarticulate in voicing what he feels and has to convey them only through his eyes and expressions while the camera captures him in extreme closeups, right to the moving silent final scene when his wife visits him while he’s in quarantine. While in front of a moon crater, he also does a private ritual, letting go of that bracelet of his daughter whose death has really haunted him.

One asset of the film is that, although we already know what happened, we still feel the tension of the whole mission like we’re seeing it for the first time. The film’s technical aspects help a lot in this as they are just amazing. Many scenes are recreated with incredible realism, including the moon landing. The cinematography puts you right where the action is inside the claustrophobic rockets, just as the astronauts themselves would have experienced it. The sound design convinces us we are indeed right there in the rockets. The musical score is alternate gentle in the family scenes and soaring like a sci-fi score accompanying the space and action sequences, but never going over the top.

We wonder, though, why the film didn't show Neil planting the U.S. flag on the lunar surface which made it on front page? Well, maybe because the director’s take on the film is for it to be more personal and nothing political. Making the film a rah rah point for America is not in its context, which is to make a film that is very private in treatment of its subject that really humanized him in the eyes of us viewers. After watching this film, you won’t look at the moon the same way again.