(director: Damien Chazelle; screenwriters: Josh Singer/ based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrongby James R. Hansen; cinematographer: Linus Sandgren; editor: Tom Cross; music: Justin Hurwitz; cast: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong), Pablo Schrieber (Jim Lovell), Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong), Jason Clarke (Edward Higgins White), Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Corey Stoll (Buzz Aldrin), Patrick Fugit (Elliott See), Christopher Abbott (Dave Scott), Ciaran Hinds (Robert Gilruth), Olivia Hamilton (Pat White), Shea Whigham (Gus Grissom), Lukas Haas (Michael Collins), Ethan Embry (Pete Conrad), Brian D’Arcy James (Joseph A. Walker), Cory Michael Smith (Roger Chaffee), Kris Swanberg(Marilyn See); Runtime: 138; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle; Universal Pictures; 2018)

“When it covers the air sequences the film excels, while on earth things become a bit drab.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”/”Whiplash“) tells the history lesson story of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon in 1969 as a step forward for not only America but mankind, where even impossible dreams may come through if you go for it. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, in an excellent starchy performance), the iconic “everyman” anti-hero hero, was the first person to ever walk on the moon (telling us on the moon this was “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”). His fellow Apollo 11 astronauts were the opportunistic Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas).Josh Singer freshly adapts it to film from the 2005 book by James R. Hansen, keeping the narrative mostly accurate except for a few lyrical embellishments.

When it covers the air sequences the film excels, while on earth things become a bit drab covering Neil and his loyal wife Janet (Claire Foy, stuck in an underwritten part) raise two young boys and relate to the other bland astronaut families living in their Houston neighborhood. It begins in 1961, pre-NASA, with Armstrong taking risks flying experimental planes 140,000 feet over the Mojave Desert, and at the same time dealing with the death in 1962, at age 2, by cancer, of his beloved daughter. The filmmaker believes this incident turned Armstrong into the laconic introvert who seems without the ability to articulate his emotions.

Before we get to the moonwalk, we cover a seven-year period, where Armstrong in the NASA program in Houston undergoes rigorous training (physically and mentally challenged in claustrophobic training simulators), enduring the loss of several colleagues he was close to and taking in without reacting to the ongoing Vietnam War protests and cold war propaganda being spread that America is in a space race only to beat the Russians to the moon. Meanwhile critics at the time are saying America’s global outlook is only to sell itself on the world stage as a leader and that we should first solve the poverty problem at home. But the filmmakers believe the mission was sincere, it was a way for Americans to know that their government can do smart things and make the world a better place. On the night before going to the moon, Neil’s wife forces him to face his two sons and tell them there’s a chance he won’t come back.

Though the film is uneven, basically a study of Armstrong and his resolve, it has a few magical sequences that have a visceral power that make you wonder how much the world would be a better place if it could find the money and energy to have idealistic budgets with no political aims but to advance mankind. But the film never got far with that message, maybe not believing it itself, and instead tried the more trying task of explaining the complexity of Armstrong. This left the exceptionally made film mostly rather cold and underwhelming instead of awesome.