The Screening Room | Intimate look at space race propels 'First Man'

The Screening Room | Intimate look at space race propels 'First Man'

I was speaking to a friend the other day about how we take the age we live in for granted. We punch 10 numbers into our cellphones and talk to people thousands of miles away and don't give it a second thought. We have cures for diseases that were once fatal. And space travel? Well, does anyone really think about that at all anymore?

The best parts of Damien Chazelle's "First Man" remind us of how wondrous and difficult it was, and still is, to put a man in space, a feat that we don't give a second thought to now that commercial flights to cosmos seem like a possibility in our lifetime. While not as comprehensive as Phillip Kaufmann's classic "The Right Stuff," it touches on many of the same events, albeit through the perspective of astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon.

Intimate rather than epic, the filmmaker's approach is to be commended though it isn't wholly successful as the man at its center remains a cypher until the end.

The movie opens in 1961 with a harrowing sequence that will be repeated again and again. Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is testing the experimental X-15 aircraft, pushing it to its limits in order to see where its flaws lie. Instead of traditional shots showing us the plane rocketing through the sky, we are confined to the cockpit with Armstrong, our vision obscured, subject to massive shaking and the sounds of metal creaking, straining and rattling. This moment, as well as others depicting numerous missions, drives home the sense of danger these men faced better than any other film of its kind. In praising these men's bravery and sacrifice, "First Man" has few peers.

However, the bulk of the film concerns Armstrong and his family, his long-suffering wife Janet (a very good Claire Foy) and their two sons. Never an expressive man, the pilot is haunted by the death of his daughter Karen, who suffered from a brain tumor and died at the age of two.

Refusing to deal with his grief, Armstrong pours himself into his work, eager to do whatever is necessary to help NASA put a man on the moon, working long hours and putting himself in danger again and again. His tenacity pays off as he's ultimately made commander of the Apollo 11 mission and goes down in history as the first man on the moon.

However, his marriage suffered as a result, his steely wife Janet tending to the couple's sons, dual parenting even when Armstrong was at home.

More than anything, "Man" is a tribute to the first astronauts and their wives — the men putting their lives on the line each and every time they stepped into an experimental plane or space capsule, the women standing by, putting on a brave face while slowly dying on the inside due to stress and worry. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer do a wonderful job of capturing the anxiety these women went through, giving due recognition to their sacrifice as much as that of their husbands.

However, Armstrong remains an enigma to the end. A heartbreaking scene that takes place on the moon sheds light on what plagued and drove him, but it isn't enough. Gosling does a fine job but a lack of depth given to the man make his job a difficult one. During many of the scenes on the moon, Armstrong's face is obscured due to the reflective nature of his helmet. In many ways, this proves fitting as he seems to be a man of his times, one whose job and work ethic defined him, personal glory eschewed at every turn.

'First Man' (★★★ out of four)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Lukas Haas, Kyle Chandler, Ciaran Hands, Ethan Embry, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham.

Directed by Damien Chazelle; produced by Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey and Chazelle; screenplay by Josh Singer.

A Universal Pictures release. 141 minutes. Rated PG-13 (thematic content including peril and brief strong language). At the AMC Champaign 13, AMC Danville Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16 IMAX.

Also new in theaters

Shaky duality plagues "Venom" (★★ stars). A story broke earlier this year that revealed that years ago Sony Pictures had the opportunity to acquire the rights to all of the characters in the Marvel Comics' universe for $25 million. They declined this offer and snatched up the rights to "Spider-Man" and all characters related to them for $10 million, Sony Pictures President Yair Landau saying at the time, "No one cares about the other Marvel characters."

It's easy to play Monday morning quarterback and regard this as a bonehead move. However, at the time Marvel Comics was in bankruptcy and the comic book movie didn't have the cinematic currency it does now. To be fair, Sony had great success with its initial three "Spider-Man" movies, while its reboot and sequel underperformed in comparison to the big screen adventures of the webslinger's peers, which were bringing in billions for Marvel Films and their current partner Disney.

In an effort to stake a claim in the lucrative superhero genre, Sony is now producing a series of films focusing on the supporting characters in Spiderman's world (the Spiderverse), their first feature being "Venom," a ridiculously popular villain who first graced the screen in "Spider-Man 3."

Tom Hardy is on board as Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who crosses paths with gazllionaire Carlton Drake (Ruiz Ahmed), who's rumored to be conducting some rather nefarious science experiments.

Turns out, a space mission he funded brought back an alien life form, a symbiote looking for a human host to bond with. Drake and his minions have been using the homeless in an effort to find a match, all to no avail. All of this gets the bulldog in Brock fired up, so he breaks into one of Drake's labs, has an unsavory encounter with the life form and guess who's a match?

At this point, the film becomes rather entertaining as we see Hardy fully invest in the ridiculous nature of the premise, his earnest approach clashing with the outlandish tone to create a darkly humorous exercise. As the terrible twosome tracks down Drake's lackeys and the big bad guy himself, CGI mayhem reigns with a good deal of urban destruction left in their wake.

This is a serviceable film that will likely please fans, but it's obvious that Ruben Fleischer isn't quite sure what to do with the material. Working from a script by three writers isn't helping matters either. Does the movie want to be a love story, what with Brock trying to make right with his estranged fiancée Anne Weying (a wasted Michelle Williams) or is it intended to be a riff on the superhero genre with the dark side of one of its most popular characters tearing it apart one hackneyed quip at a time?

In the end, "Venom" ends up resembling its character in all the wrong ways; it wrestles with itself to find a purpose yet it never lands one.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter

Topics (1):Film