Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Space-exploration movies based upon real events, not surprisingly, have usually made “the mission” the thrust of the plot.

First Man goes a different route. It dares to focus on a man rather than a mission—Neil Armstrong, the man at the center of the Apollo 11 mission, and what made him tick. It shows the familial struggles the man dealt with leading up to the mission and, most strikingly, his viewpoint as a bunch of white-clad workers packed him into sardine-can-like compartments and blasted him off into space. It’s an amazingly intimate movie, considering the subject matter.

Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) doesn’t ignore the details of NASA’s buildup to Armstrong’s arrival on the lunar surface. In fact, the film is one of the most scientifically intriguing films I’ve seen regarding what astronauts go through, and the mechanics of a space launch. However, it also manages to be a moving, often haunting study of the sacrifice and pain Armstrong went through to beat the Russians to the punch.

Before this film, I did not know that Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling, in top form) lost his young daughter to cancer in 1962, seven years before his legendary flight. Appropriately, that event is as central of an occurrence as the moon landing in this movie. This film is about Armstrong’s sacrifices and hardships, as well as the enormous psychological and physiological tortures he went through in that decade leading up to Apollo 11. In turn, it’s a testament to every man and woman who risked their lives in the name of the space race.

Claire Foy is the epitome of patience as Janet Armstrong, who must tend to her mischievous son as the sound from a NASA intercom drifts through her house—a sound letting her know her husband is surviving his latest mission.

Chazelle brilliantly stages the launches from Armstrong’s point of view. The camera violently shakes, with the view from a small window being the only thing we see—as if we are watching from inside Armstrong’s helmet.

The final moon landing has Armstrong immersed in total silence as he watches Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) hop away from the lunar module. The film cost about $60 million to make; that’s like an indie budget nowadays. It’s to Chazelle and his crew’s credit that it looks like it cost at least twice as much.

You might find yourself justifiably bummed out for much of First Man’s running time. Besides the death of his daughter, Armstrong lost some good friends at NASA, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who all died horrific deaths during an Apollo 1 test. There was also Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), who died in a test-flight crash preparing for Gemini 9.

Armstrong was well-known for his quiet and stoic demeanor. Gosling, working with a script by Josh Singer, shows us a calm, quiet and focused man who kept looking forward, no matter what forces tried to drag him back. The film depicts a trio of near-death experiences, including the film’s opening sequence involving a test flight in space that almost took Armstrong out. No matter how many times he had to crash or eject, Armstrong endured with almost-impossible strength and reserve—which Gosling depicts perfectly.

First Man forgoes much of the obvious patriotism and international competition that marked the space race in favor of simply showing what a dude had to endure to get lunar dust on his boots. Going to the moon was a messed-up, crazily dangerous endurance test—and this movie succeeds in making that abundantly clear.

First Man is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

David Fincher apparently set out to create the nastiest movie ever about marriages gone bad with Gone Girl.

I think he has succeeded.

Fincher and Gillian Flynn (writer of both the novel and screenplay) come up with a toxic cocktail laced with dark humor, scabrous satire and blistering performances. Anybody who has suffered through a bad relationship, or doubts aspects of the relationship in which they are now, will feel the power of Gone Girl.

On the day of his fifth anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) returns home after sulking at the bar he owns with his sister (a funny Carrie Coon). There’s a problem: His wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), is missing. Nick calls the police and the in-laws, and quickly finds himself sucked into in a media circus that leaves him dazed and confused. His demeanor in public is a strange combination of a malaise and ill-timed smiles. Yeah … he’s a suspect.

Through a series of narrated flashbacks, we hear the story of the Dunne marriage from Amy’s perspective, as chronicled in her diary. Everything started sweet enough, with the two of them being impossibly perfect for each other. However, family deaths, money troubles and lapses in moral judgment leave them stricken with loathing and regret by the time the “wood” anniversary arrives.

Nick is skewered on TV by a Nancy Grace-type “journalist” (a snooty Missi Pyle), and the detectives investigating his case (the deadpan Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) have little faith in his innocence. The evidence against Nick becomes quite daunting as it piles up. The whole thing plays a lot like the Scott Peterson case, involving a husband who killed his pregnant wife and dumped her body in San Francisco Bay 12 years ago.

Then, at about the halfway point, the movie goes completely and wonderfully insane. I recommend that you accept what happens—even though it’s totally nuts—and enjoy the rest of this messed-up ride. Gone Girl becomes a nightmarish fantasy, a hyper-sensationalized “what-if” that thrives on its implausibility. Had this movie tried to stick closer to reality, it would’ve killed too much of the fun.

Pike, a British actress perhaps known best for Jack Reacher, gets the role of a lifetime with Amy—and she devours it. We see many faces of Amy, some of them pure, with others as monstrous as Godzilla. What we see early in Amy’s story doesn’t prepare us for what comes later.

There’s nobody better cast than Affleck as Nick. Affleck has often been the victim of unjust tabloid garbage and Internet slagging, so when Nick is required to show media fatigue, Affleck needs only to pull from his personal Battfleck or Bennifer experiences to hit the right notes. He also has an eerie resemblance to Scott Peterson, which helps. Most of all, he shows what has been true throughout his career: He’s a fine actor capable of great nuance.

With this effort, Fincher erases the waste of time that was his adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and gets back to the business of being one of the world’s finest directors. As he did with Fight Club, Fincher gets to the heart of the novel with which he’s working, and does the book more than justice. He makes a great-looking movie, and the score, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, will amaze.

Gone Girl will make many of us laugh (especially the single and divorced folks), force some of us to cringe, and cause nightmares for those unsteady couples with rings on their fingers.

Gone Girl is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews