First Man–Not Over the Moon

 First Man movie

First Man is a movie  biopic about the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, in the years 1961 to 1969 .   We are introduced to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his days before being selected for the dangerous mission of first “Man on the Moon.”

Armstrong is involved in  a series of errors while flying experimental missions,  in training for  the NASA moon landing. While he is undergoing the rigors of flight simulation, his two-and-a half-year-old daughter is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.   Despite the couple’s  best efforts, the child dies, leaving the parents and their young son to deal with the  tragedy.  To compound Neil Armstrong’s difficulties, a series of aborted efforts and deaths occur  during trial beta-testing for the moon mission.

Apollo 11’s crew is selected and  Armstrong is surprised to find he will be in charge.  Now with two young sons who may lose their father on this spaceflight,  his wife Janet (Claire Foy)  insists that Neil inform  his sons about the real  risks  and that he may not survive the mission.

The enigmatic relationship between Neil and his wife, on the one hand, and his two children, on the other, are not fully developed but are the emotional core of the film.  Despite the rather peripheral role Claire Foy is given as Janet Armstrong,  her understated  performance  reveals the steely strength and  confronts the demons of a family’s sacrifice for the sake of the heroic (and narcissistic) impulses of her husband.  The “stand by my man” attitude of the selfless wife does not hold true for the actual Janet Armstrong  and with little dialogue to work with,  Claire Foy in First Man still manages to show her resolute reserve in order to protect her children.   First Man would have been even stronger with more backstory about Neil Armstrong’s   motivation to prove himself at the expense of his own family.  This film could have been so much better.

“The Crown”–Glory to Her Highness

the-crownThe anachronistic British aristocracy must sensitively negotiate its relationship with its public. “The Crown”, the November original series released from Netflix, is the story of a conflict between private and public, between the personal feelings of a wife, mother, and sister and the queen (Elizabeth II).

At its core “The Crown” is a character study and a family drama. Do you put personal fulfillment over political duty and obligation? That is the question. “The Crown” is a family saga, particularly between sisters. Conflicts with personal fulfillment and romantic love hide behind a curtain of pomp and circumstance. We are allowed behind palace doors to witness a struggle of personalities.

Elizabeth’s drama begins with the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936, which forces his reluctant younger brother George VI to ascend to the throne. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth (in a remarkable performance by Claire Foy from “Wolf Hall”), is a witness to all the regal drama. With the death of King George VI, Elizabeth must suddenly transform from a loving sibling and shy young wife and mother into a queen.

And at the moment of her father’s death, it becomes clear that Elizabeth — unlike her tearful mother and sister — is able to suppress her desires and emotions in order to assume the throne.

Perhaps the most compelling drama in “The Crown”, however, is the conflict between sisters. Her younger and more glamorous sister, Margaret, asks for permission to marry a recently divorced officer whose ex-wife is still living. This love affair, ironically, is similar in circumstances to that of her uncle (King Edward VIII) who was compelled to abdicate the throne for marriage to a divorced woman (Wallace Simpson). At that time remarriage under those circumstances was strictly forbidden by the Anglican Church. First promising to stand by her sister, Elizabeth is compelled by those in power to recant as she chooses duty as queen and defender of the Anglican Church over her love for her sister.

The popularity of “Downton Abbey” reveals an American fascination with the British royal family and aristocracy. Why is the monarchy this crucial to the nation? Queen Mary (played by Eileen Atkins), the grandmother of Elizabeth, reminds her granddaughter: “Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.”

A superb family saga with the machinations of politics as its undercurrent!