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Movie Review: 'First Man'


It was one of the most dangerous missions in history, landing a man on the moon. Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in the new film "First Man." It retells the dramatic history leading up to the Apollo 11 flight.


CLAIRE FOY: (As Janet) This isn't just another trip, Neil. You're not just going to work.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As child) Do you think you'll come back?

RYAN GOSLING: (As Neil) There are risks, but we have every intention of coming back.

KING: Film critic Kenneth Turan joins us from our studios at NPR West. Ken, welcome.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: Good to be here.

KING: All right. So this is one of those movies that critics are calling an experience. Why is that? How did you feel leaving the theater?

TURAN: (Laughter). Well, I mean, this is, again, a film you've got to see on the biggest screen you can find because this is a film that attempts to kind of immerse you in what happened. You know, you get a sense of how these guys are kind of - what they call them, like, they're in the tin cans up there.

KING: Yeah.

TURAN: Probably a lot of people's cars are sturdier than this spacecraft looks, and it's just kind of terrifying.

KING: This movie, "First Man," is directed by Damien Chazelle, who also directed "Whiplash" and "La La Land." I know you are impressed by how immersive this movie felt. How did he pull that off? How did he make you feel like you were there?

TURAN: Everything that could be real was made real. Everything is the same size. They had to make slight modifications to the capsule because of the height of the actors. Ryan Gosling even learned to fly to kind of have a sense of what Neil Armstrong's life was like before he was an astronaut.

KING: Well, Ryan Gosling is known for his commitment to his characters. What did you think about his performance in this movie?

TURAN: You believe he's Neil Armstrong. And this is an interesting thing to say because Neil Armstrong is a pulled-in guy. Neil Armstrong is not Mr. Congeniality. But Ryan Gosling manages to make that character interesting. He's an actor with an enormous amount of presence. He really just - even when he's still, you want to watch him, and that very much goes on here.

KING: Does this movie give us any insight into his private life?

TURAN: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of that. This was made with the full cooperation of Armstrong's family to see the personal stuff that affected him. The film begins with the death of his 2-year-old daughter to cancer. And, you know, there's a wonderful scene with - Claire Foy plays his wife, Janet Armstrong, and there's a wonderful scene where he's planning to leave for this moon voyage and not sit down with his two boys and tell them, you know, I'm going on this thing and I might not be coming back. And she really reads him the riot act. She says, you have to sit down and talk to them. It's a very powerful scene.

KING: You know, often the wives can be very two-dimensional. They're worried. They're frantic. They want you to come home safe. It sounds like Claire Foy pulls off something more nuanced in this movie.

TURAN: And, you know, in some ways she's the most interesting character in the film. I mean, she doesn't go to the moon, but her emotions are very strong. The film almost comes more alive emotionally whenever she's on the screen than when she's not.

KING: We should note that this movie's release does not come without some controversy. The movie omits a scene where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin plant the flag on the moon. What do you think?

TURAN: Well, you know, you see the American flag in a shot. It's not like they try and make believe there was no American flag planted.


TURAN: They just don't show you the planting flag moment. This film wants you to see the stuff you don't know. So I think they just - because it's such a everyone knows that moment, I think they almost felt they didn't need to deal with it.

KING: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and The Los Angeles Times. We've been talking to him about "First Man," starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. Ken, thanks so much.

TURAN: Thank you. This has been great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.