Fly Me to the Moon Review

To this day, there’s a not-insignificant number of people who believe the United States faked the moon landing: In one poll conducted for C-SPAN for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, some 6% of respondents expressed the belief that Neil Armstrong’s one small step was taken on a soundstage, not the lunar surface. The fizzy new Hollywood comedy Fly Me to the Moon offers a more plausible spin on this perennial fixation of cranks and just-asking-questions types, positing a version of history where NASA was ultimately prepared to fake the moon landing, should such a contingency plan prove necessary. The film folds this cheeky bit of tinfoil conjecture into a modestly appealing, throwback crowd-pleaser – a faintly unfashionable romantic comedy set against the gee-whiz backdrop of the space race. Without indulging in a lot of blatantly retro affectation, Love, Simon director and former Arrowverse boss Greg Berlanti communicates with the spirit of a bygone era of star-driven studio confections, the kind in vogue when America first reached for the stars. Think of a Doris Day vehicle where she has both moon rock and Rock Hudson on the mind.

The script by Hollywood scion Rose Gilroy (her dad made Nightcrawler, her mom teamed up with Riggs and Murtagh in the last two Lethal Weapons, and her uncle did Andor) drops us into the lead up to Apollo 11. America’s honeymoon with NASA is effectively over, and the space program is fast losing support from both the public and Washington, as headlines turn to the ongoing quagmire in Vietnam. Enter Kelly Jones (Scarlett Johansson), a confident marketing wizard recruited by one of Richard Nixon’s right-hand fixers (played by Woody Harrelson) to revamp the whole image of the egghead operation in Florida. Introduced manipulating a room of sexist automobile executives, Kelly is basically Donna Draper, complete with a tragic, Dick Whitman-style secret identity. It’s refreshing to see Johansson escape the enigmatic steeliness of Marvel action duty with one of her bubbliest star turns, though her character here is as slippery as Natasha Romanoff: a self-described con woman trying on new accents and personas as needed.

Kelly ends up butting heads, sometimes flirtatiously, with Cole Davis (Channing Tatum), mission director of Apollo 11 – and a square-jawed boy scout with some skeletons of his own in the closet. (He’s haunted by his complicity in the death of the astronauts who perished in the Apollo 1 mishap.) In classic rom-com form, the two meet cute at the local diner, before the Top Gun/Anchorman reveal that they’re uneasy new colleagues. But Cole is less a pigheaded chauvinist than a straight shooter who’s disturbed by Kelly’s deceptive tactics for selling NASA to an increasingly skeptical nation. (Casting actors to play his coworkers, for instance.) Tatum has the tricky task of making a romantic leading man out of a guy who spends long stretches of this romance irritated with his love interest. While it’s easy to imagine another star (like Chris Pine, who was originally cast in the role) offering a more credible pivot from distrust to ardor, Tatum supplies a certain winning earnestness. A wistful true believer, he’s like a living embodiment of the NASA spirit, putting a handsome face on a country’s stargazing ambitions.

In fact, Fly Me to the Moon treats Kelly and Cole’s salty-sweet relationship as a clash of values – not so much a battle of the sexes as a proxy skirmish between the competing motives underlying the mission. Apollo 11, by the film’s estimation, was at once an inspiring push beyond the previous boundaries of human experience and a victory in the propaganda war with the USSR. A big part of the movie’s charm lies in how it squares the romanticism and cynicism of the space race, suggesting that both were instrumental to making it to the moon. There’s also something endearing about how Berlanti makes a giant, multi-billion-dollar operation look like a tight-knit workplace, with after-hours mixers and likable office personalities played by Ray Romano, Donald Elise Watkins, and Noah Robbins. While more serious dramatizations like The Right Stuff and First Man have taken audiences through the (sometimes literal) nuts and bolts of astronaut training, Berlanti centers the big picture to paradoxically keep the focus on the smaller matter of human personalities within the NASA machine.

There’s an occasional sweatiness to Fly Me to the Moon’s zippy brand of entertainment. Gilroy’s script is sometimes labored in its screwball banter, winking at the audience’s privileged historical hindsight. (One groaner finds Kelly looking forward to the 1980s, when “there will be no nukes and equal rights for all.”) Likewise, Berlanti’s sense of style – a lot of split screens and Motown-scored montages – might leave you pining for what frequent Tatum collaborator Steven Soderbergh could have done with this material. On the other hand, the movie has a casual studio sheen that shouldn’t be taken for granted in an age starved for handsome Hollywood movies; whenever the characters are taking a dusk breather against a Kennedy Space Center backdrop, you can understand why it got promoted from streaming fodder to theatrical release.

The movie is half over before it introduces its cheeky, high-concept hook: that Kelly, under strict orders from Harrelson’s bemused back-channel bigwig, will have to oversee a simulation of the moon landing, a backup designed to be piped into households worldwide should Cole’s team fail. This huckster secret op, directed by a pompous, catty commercial veteran played by Community’s Jim Rash and codenamed Project Artemis, should arguably be the comic fuel cell of Fly Me to the Moon. There’s certainly a lot of potential for chaos-on-the-set humor in creating a faux moonwalk parallel to the real one NASA was racing to achieve. (Operation Avalanche, by Canadian director Matt Johnson, built a scrappy indie thriller from this very premise.) But Berlanti curiously minimizes that element, treating the whole deceptive production as something of an afterthought, covered via some wire-work slapstick and a couple of wan Stanley Kubrick jokes. It’s a missed opportunity.

Johansson and Tatum’s romance never achieves full liftoff.

The climax is more clever. Here, Berlanti and Gilroy thread together the real wonder of NASA’s achievement with the persistent rumors that it was all a grand illusion cooked up for TV. The suspense ends up hinging, smartly, on a shadow operation within the shadow operation. “Will they make it or fake it?” goes the tagline, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it keeps that ball in the stratosphere until the closing minutes. As for Cole and Kelly, they spend much of the movie’s final stretch apart, communicating long distance à la Houston making contact with the three men who made history on July 20, 1969. A better movie might have better merged the screwball complications of Apollo 11 and Project Artemis with the arc of Johansson and Tatum’s romance, which never achieves full liftoff. But the one-time Hail, Caesar! costars generate plenty of gravitational charm anyway. The old-fashioned appeal of attractive movie stars trading quips stubbornly endures, like a Sinatra song or our nuttiest national conspiracy theory.

 

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