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‘First Man’ explores the inner life of a public hero

Though it wasn't the week's top film in terms of how much money it made, "First Man" is bound to be remembered fairly well in February when the 2018 Oscar nominations are announced. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Everyone should be familiar with the name Neil Armstrong.

After all, in July 1969 Armstrong became the first human to step onto the surface of the moon. He did so as commander of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission, and his achievement – which was broadcast across the Earth – was witnessed by millions.

With the likes of news anchor Walter Cronkite describing the scene, those viewers watched as Armstrong manually flew the lunar module in an effort to avoid rocks as big as cars and to find a safe landing spot. Then, a few hours later, they heard his famous garbled pronouncement: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It was a thrilling moment, one that director Damien Chazelle captures in “First Man,” his latest film since his celebrated 2016 musical “La La Land.” But Chazelle’s newest film strives to do more than merely re-create that famous event. It attempts to delve into the life of a man whom few knew intimately.

Armstrong’s pre-NASA credentials were clearly impressive. Years before, he had earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at Purdue University. He’d served as a Navy fighter pilot during the Korean War, flying 78 missions. Following the war, he’d worked as a test pilot, evaluating some 200 different aircraft including the supersonic X-15, in which he climbed to a height of 207,000 feet – or just over 39 miles.

The next time he would fly that high would be during the Gemini 8 mission, the first of his two trips into space. On his second trip, three years later, he took his first historic step onto the moon’s surface.

Though he documents much of Armstrong’s past, Chazelle has another, bigger intent: He wants us to know the man behind the mission. In doing so, “First Man” attempts to differentiate itself from the other two, arguably best known, astronaut movies: Philip Kaufman’s 1983 “The Right Stuff” and Ron Howard’s 1995 “Apollo 13,” both of which were more male-centric andmission-oriented.

Working from a screenplay by Josh Singer, who wrote scripts both for last year’s “The Post” and for 2015’s Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” Chazelle focuses on the inner Armstrong – the one who is no-nonsense in public interviews (declaring the one thing he would take to the moon is “more fuel”), terse with his family (he has to be forced by his wife Janet, played well by Claire Foy, to talk to his two sons before the moon mission) and determinedly workaholic, partly as a way to avoid the grief over the death of his daughter and a few close friends.

Capturing anyone’s inner battle on film can be a difficult task, and to do so Chazelle takes a few unfortunate shortcuts – inventing a sequence involving a child’s medical bracelet, for one. Also, Ryan Gosling – Chazelle’s “La La Land” lead whom he cast as Armstrong – isn’t always adept at portraying a complex inner struggle.

Even so, much of “First Man” works splendidly, giving a sense of authenticity, not to mention uncertainty and excitement, to a story that feels as old as the moon itself.