First Man one-sheet. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

by Cynthia Citron

It’s a magical movie. In a foreign language. With no subtitles. And it’s one of the most intense experiences you’ll have in a movie — even if you don’t know what they’re talking about. You may want to walk out, but stay with it. It’s worth it. It’s history.

It’s “First Man”, the story of what it took to get astronaut Neil Armstrong to the moon. If you lived through it, the memory will exhilarate you. If you didn’t, you’ll hold your breath at the wonder of it.

“First Man” was scripted by Josh Singer from an Armstrong-approved biography by James Hansen (“First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong”) that was the background for the current film directed by Damien Chazelle. Its first scene will blast you out of your seat as you ride the fire plume from an ascending rocket. Again and again this deafening roar accompanies the successive advances in rocket science as Armstrong moves through flights that record unique problems, near-fatal accidents, and the ultimate triumphant achievements of the dedicated heroes that took America to the moon.

Overlooking the impressive career that Armstrong had had as a naval officer, aeronautical engineer, aviator, and test pilot before becoming a potential astronaut, the film opens with the grueling training that this hardy group of men endured in preparation for their eventual flights.

One activity in particular shows Armstrong and then Ed White spinning crazily in a contraption that changed its motion and direction every minisecond and left them feeling vomitous and wobbly. So did the blast-off rehearsals in which they had to lie supine to wriggle into the capsule, secure themselves in their seats, and sit still while the vehicle loudly and violently adjusted the gravity and pressure in the cabin.

The film also includes the emotionally shattering implosion that killed the three astronauts of Apollo 1 (Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee) imprisoned in their capsule, unable to get out.

A number of men who directed the missions from the control room, as well as certain astronauts, are also referenced, but not formally identified. From time to time you might catch a glimpse of Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, Lukas Haas as Michael Collins, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, or J.D. Evermore as Christopher Kraft, NASA’s first Flight Director. All of them talking to each other in fluent technicalese, which nobody bothers to explain. The major role, however, belongs to Ryan Gosling.

Gosling represents Armstrong as a brilliant engineer, a self-assured leader, and an obsessive workaholic. He doesn’t appear to harbor overwhelming passion for his wife, a rather joyless Claire Foy, nor for his sons, with whom he spends a playful minute or two every so often.

With the rest of the world he appears distant, humble, quiet, and solemn. Not the sort of guy you’d go out of your way to have a beer with.

Amidst all the previous rackety banging and crashing, however, the film suddenly comes to an ethereal silence when the three American astronauts arrive on the surface of the moon. As the camera pans around the empty, colorless wasteland, it is nearly heart-stopping to relive that incredible moment in time.

And all through this nearly two-and-a-half hour film the explosions and crashes are continually overpowered by the dazzling musical score created by composer and conductor Justin Hurwitz, which includes a 94-piece orchestra, a theremin, and other instruments strangely popular in the mid-20th century.

“First Man” may be overlong and somewhat repetitious, but it certainly makes its mark as a compelling documentary of that historical moment when President Kennedy committed America to the exploration of space. It can be enjoyed even if you don’t speak technicalese.

The film opened in Los Angeles on October 12th and can currently be seen in theaters all over the city.

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