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Film Critic Harlan Jacobson Reviews "First Man" and "The Old Man and the Gun"

First Man
Harlan Jacobson for WBGO

It’s the last hurrah for the mid-century WASP, those men born before WWII, come of age after it, and built or dodged the System, the Death Star of the Military Industrial Complex Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address in 1960. Time to consider the corporate white male who pre-dated the rise of the Boomers, my crowd, who inherited much, did little but resisted BS in all its manifold guises and forms.

We are talking about two films, First Man by Damien Chazelle, that zeroes in on Neil Armstrong, from Wapakoneta, near my part of Ohio, who traveled further from home than any of us ever has and come back, and The Old Man and the Gun, directed by David (“Pete’s Dragon”) Lowery, which I have come to think of as the Last Man film, since its star Robert Redford, has said it’s his last picture show.

What I said earlier about Armstrong traveling further from home than any of us ever did… really isn’t true. In fact, the film has us consider Armstrong, played by Chazelle’s LA LA Land star Ryan Gosling, for the mid-century balance sheet of old school American male virtues. Showboating, grandstanding, panic don’t get you to the moon and back, with time out for a walk around the place. Trust in science, discipline, work and grace under pressure, Hemingway’s words, were American, and pointedly the script by West Wing veteran writer Josh Singer, who also wrote The Post and Spotlight for the screen, shows Armstrong using words like nuts and bolts to cut to the chase.

Film Clip

That’s how you get to the moon. Armstrong was an engineer, and Gosling plays him a little like he's looking for the Paul Newman confidence suit that Wardrobe left around here somewhere. Chazelle has done a remarkable job of conveying in a serious way what was a standup routine by Louis CK, speaking of dead white guys, about people who complain about their airline flights: You get into a tube, and you recline in a leather chair—okay not as far back as the Barca lounger at home--and this tube leaves the ground and flies through the air and you get out and you’re in Madrid, and then you bitch to your wife about the leg room and the chicken?

It’s testament to Chazelle that he goes where other NASA films have gone before—The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, Gravity, even Star Wars, and manages to be credible and not boring. You are there, wonderstruck and a little scared, which basically means shaking the crap out of the capsule in a color palette that is mostly blue-black and white.

There is some distraction in the politics of this stupid moment that Chazelle doesn’t show Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon. You have to be brain dead not to get that First Man delivers the feelings of the achievement. If you weren’t around and don’t know, or if you don’t remember where you were and what you felt on July 20, 1969, when the whole world stopped to watch America land on the moon—however it was criticized at the time in the midst of a divisive politics greater than the ones we’re enduring now—First Man’s use of image, close-up, wide shot and soundtrack flood the senses with admiration. America sent a man to the moon and back. And Neil Armstrong didn’t bitch about the leg room or the lunch. Unlike Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, played here by Corey Stoll as a glory hound, reversing decades of Aldrin’s public relations offensive as a spiritual voyager, Armstrong just got it done, surely the dominant American male credo of the mid-20th Century.

Unfortunately, Armstrong was also an engineer at home with his wife and children. It’s Gosling’s puzzled look as Armstrong that Chazelle means us to see, when the gulf between the astronaut and his wife is wider than that between earth and the moon, and the film’s color scheme turns to pale, washed out pastels of the 1960s. When the emotional dimension is one he just doesn’t see even as the American man in him defies the rules of the first three dimensions and keeps thing steady as she goes when things get hairy on the new frontier. First Man isn’t about American colonialism. It’s about American engineering… about parts fitting together that work, to let men—the category then that is experiencing redress now—expand what was possible.

Which is where Robert Redford comes in. I’ve never thought Redford was a great actor, and yet I’ve loved him my whole adult life for who he is and the characters he’s played, not very big stretches but stripes of himself. You know his characters as well or better than I, the Sundance Kid, Hubbell Gardner, Bob Woodward, and the man who made Sundance a furnace and a film depot. In short, the mid-century male with the All-American looks of a working class Southern California surfer kid who went over to the dark side as an anti-hero, heroically wrestling with dominant myths and structures. In The Old Man and the Gun, based on the story of one Forrest Tucker, who in 1981 managed to escape from San Quentin and enjoyed a brief career as a septuagenarian gentleman bank robber. Then comes the meet cute, roadside when he’s on the lam and runs into Jewel, this nice widow lady with car trouble, played by Sissy Spacek who turns 70 this Christmas Day. After a bit of coffee shop courting, Tucker comes out and tells Jewel who he is and what he does. There’s that Redford trademark on boyish truth-telling again. And he has manners, when it comes to stickups he’s all service with a smile. Forrest lights up Jewel’s heart and confounds her sense of right and wrong. That their pairing has a little of the thrill of late romance of The Bridges of Madison County – they’re the Sears version of Clint and Meryl--that Redford invokes that era’s enduring fascination with gentleman bandit DB Cooper, who jumped out of an airplane with bags of cash and made a clean getaway, as if Neil Armstrong had enough and cashed out, is what makes this film and Redford in it magical.

Nothing like the renovated myth of A Star Is Born, with Bradley Cooper as a country and western man surrendering power to Lady Gaga as a young woman torch song singer whose time it is to rise. Fourth time around, it’s finally the zeitgeist: it’s blowing the roof off theatres. I hate to see Redford jump out of our lives. Particularly with bags of my cash. At the last Sundance what little I saw of him at Park City, he had a full head of (somebody’s?) tousled blond hair. He moved the way some 82-year olds move, wizened, a little stiff, and spoke as if a little too-rehearsed, the way other old actor-politicians have done. But it was still Bob. The Who are Those Guys Bob. Ready to jump off a cliff if he thought it would let him fight the good fight another day.

I saw all three films at the last Toronto Film Festival. So, shoot a night and see them back to back. And say goodbye to the old white guys. It’s a new day. And I’m sure you’re up to it.

Click above to hear Harlan's full review.

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.