The present-day super-movie-stars are no longer Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. Nor are they Robert Redford and Paul Newman. They are Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling: actors of a certain generation who are not here-today-gone-tomorrow celebrities. And 2018 is a banner year for both. Bradley Cooper not only stars in but directs the much-heralded fourth version of A STAR IS BORN, while Ryan Gosling plays the title character in one of the season’s deservedly high-profile features. That would be FIRST MAN, in which he offers a spot-on, appropriately low-key performance as Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who back in 1969 became the first American to set foot on the moon.
FIRST MAN, directed by Damien Chazelle-- this is his first feature post-LA LA LAND-- does a solid job of offering a portrait of Neil Armstrong. He is depicted as a devoted husband and father and, at the very beginning, he is shown to deeply love his young daughter. He is heartbroken because she is desperately ill, and his gut response to her predicament establishes Armstrong’s humanity. He may be a celebrity, but he also faces issues that any parent might relate to-- and this transcends his fame. So FIRST MAN is more than just a by-the-numbers biopic. Much, much more...
There also is one more aspect of the film, one which transcends 2018. FIRST MAN offers a peek into a time in which men were leaders and women were supporters. Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife, who is played by Claire Foy, is content to promote her husband, but she is more than a typical 1960’s pre-feminist heroine. At just the right moment, she speaks up and vividly expresses how she feels. A different film might spotlight, for example, the first woman astronaut. It might chart the manner in which Janet Armstrong or another astronaut’s wife becomes politicized. But not here...and this only adds to the quiet power that permeates FIRST MAN.
While watching the film, I kept asking myself: How does FIRST MAN connect to our culture in 2018? Are there any contemporary all-American champions who are in any way similar to Neil Armstrong? My response did not come easily. But for me, the bottom line is that FIRST MAN is at once a three-dimensional portrait of a 1960’s American hero and a perfect 2018 biopic. It is the story of a man who is more than an all-American idol. He is a dedicated husband and father and, in this regard, he is akin to thousands if not millions of contemporary American males. But the bottom line is that Neil Armstrong is a genuine American hero and, at this point in time, we are yearning for genuine American heroes.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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