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Sunday Lifestyle

Rocket Man

Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star
Rocket Man
Space odyssey: Ryan Gosling plays US astronaut Neil Armstrong in First Man, in a shot echoing Kubrick’s 2001.

MANILA, Philippines — While Chazelle’s film puts us in deep space, don’t expect a lighter-than-air tone from Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling — or any tap dancing, for that matter.

After an Oscar nod for his winning musical La La Land, you might expect Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to smuggle in some of that movie’s lighthearted humor and — since it once again stars Ryan Gosling — perhaps a bit of jazz or maybe a softshoe routine.

But for Chazelle’s First Man, a biopic about US astronaut Neil Armstrong’s moon mission, space is largely a humor-free zone. Don’t expect any tap dancing either (though there is a bit of moonwalking).

First Man largely eschews the lightness of space, instead soberly tracking the path of Armstrong, a genuine American hero and the first earthling to set foot on the lunar surface. Gosling plays his hero as brooding and increasingly locked-down, but also focused and driven towards his goal, one we see him gaze at several times in the movie: that ol’ harvest moon shining in the sky.

The Crown’s Claire Foy is strong as Janet, Armstrong’s earthbound wife. Photos from United International Pictures.

We first encounter Armstrong on a test flight in the early ‘60s, piercing through the Earth’s atmosphere in an experimental jet. He soon settles into weightless orbit, glimpsing what few had ever seen at the time: the edge of our blue planet. It’s a gorgeous image that reminds us of the poetry of classic space movies like 2001, Gravity and particularly The Right Stuff, the epic Philip Kaufman adaptation of Tom Wolf’s non-fiction book about NASA.

That image of spatial beauty is rudely interrupted when Armstrong’s jet bounces off the atmosphere as he tries to head back to Earth. It’s one of many dizzying, gripping moments in First Man. We learn through a La La Land-like montage that, aside from his very dangerous occupation as a test pilot, he is married to Janet (Claire Foy, fresh from The Crown) and has three kids, one of them a young daughter with a tumor. Right away, Armstrong’s tale is tinged with tragedy and a somber tone sets in. So, tap dancing is out.

What we focus on in First Man is a very detailed, almost trudging look at how astronauts prepare for space travel. (Not as funny or raunchy as Armageddon, but still.) There are the rituals of physical and psychological testing (the latter of which astronauts reportedly resented), and regular interaction with a sometimes-skeptical media (press conferences in which Armstrong and fellow astronauts try to downplay the risks, focus on the mission). And of course, there are the everyday mishaps that cost numerous lives.

In truth, Armstrong is such an iconic American hero (he walked on the moon, for God’s sakes!) that it’s probably difficult for Chazelle to really let loose with his story. And perhaps Armstrong simply was a diffident, tight-lipped kind of hero. Which makes it difficult for Josh Singer’s script (from the biography First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong) to really get below the surface of this super-smart, super-brave character.

Gosling tries. His Armstrong cries copiously when tragedy comes, but only in private. He avoids his wife and two sons, wanting to keep a distance between his job and the painful, human associations of home life. When he’s submitted to endless gyroscopic rotation as part of his astronaut training, he summons up images of his daughter to stay alert; when he’s done spinning madly, he practically asks, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

Brave, crewcut NASA boys prepare for the ride of their lives in a shot echoing The Right Stuff.

There are scenes, as in The Right Stuff, where astronauts — and, just as importantly, their wives — must learn to cope with the high mortality rate in the profession. The tension between Gosling and Foy reaches a level of open sparring, and it’s here where First Man lets off some real fireworks: as the Apollo moon mission approaches, Janet insists that Neil sit down with his sons and tell them he might not be coming back. Ever. That’s a real heavy-hitter of a scene. And Gosling and Foy handle it beautifully.

First Man aims for a truthful glimpse of NASA’s early space program, and it gets the ’60s tone just right: the cockpits, the capsules, the Houston control room. It’s often noted that the cell phones in our pockets today carry more computing power than NASA had to land the first men on the moon. Shockingly, a lot of technical errors up in space had to be fixed manually, or by improvising solutions. (See also: duct tape scene in Apollo 13.) But while Chazelle’s film puts us in the driver’s seat, so to speak, of manning a mission to the moon with great visuals and jolting sequences on the launch pad and in space, it’s perhaps too reverential towards its real-life hero. What’s missing is a stronger dramatic arc. And just a little less dead-seriousness. One can’t help recalling the humorous banter in Gravity, Apollo 13, or The Right Stuff. Instead, Gosling largely plays it with the grim determination he brought to his stunt driver in Drive.

Perhaps this is partly because Clint Eastwood had originally optioned the book for his own film, but backed out. Chazelle’s style here does have some of the squint-eyed leanness of a Clint film; it perhaps could have used more of the manic energy of Chazelle’s Whiplash or the lightening moments of La La Land.

The moon landing itself is striking — the silence takes your breath away as Armstrong touches down with fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Cory Stoll) in a lunar module before walking, then hopping, over its surface, where Armstrong finally surrenders a small, heartfelt token from earth to its gray depths. It’s another poetic image, one that brings the movie full circle back to Earth.

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First Man comes out Oct. 17.

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