WAPAKONETA — For one brisk October evening, Wapakoneta was at the center of the national cinematic spotlight.
The city and its residents reveled in that opportunity, taking part in the same type of pomp and circumstance exhibited nearly 50 years earlier when a native son — one who amazed and delighted an entire nation, indeed the world — made a triumphant return to his home town.
Wapakoneta native Neil Armstrong, who died in 2012 as the age of 82, was very much present in spirit Thursday night as the historic Wapa Theatre hosted the U.S. premiere of “First Man,” a Hollywood bio-pic that takes a close look at the life of Armstrong — starting with his time as a test pilot and through the events of July 20, 1969, when he became the first man to step foot on the surface of the moon.
A red carpet evening
Wapakoneta put its best foot forward for Thursday’s red-carpet gala, starting with a formal dinner on Willipie Street and culminating with a showing of “First Man.”
Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film debuted in August at the Venice Film Festival to rave reviews, according media reports. The movie, starring Ryan Gosling in the role of Armstrong, opened in theaters around the country Friday. Wapakoneta’s mover and shakers pulled some strings and got permission to host the movie’s official U.S. premiere one day earlier.
Becky Jordan is the manager of the Wapa Theatre. Housed inside the Brown Theater building, which has graced downtown Wapakoneta since an opera house opened there in 1904, the building has served as a movie theater since the 1930s. Its decor fit in well with the evening’s festivities.
Jordan said a vigorous letter-writing campaign and relentless nagging on the part of her booking agent convinced Universal Studios, which distributed “First Man,” that Armstrong’s hometown should be the first to host a public showing of the film.
“We told Universal, ‘This is what we want.’ And we found out about six months ago that we would get it (the U.S. premiere),” Jordan said.
Glancing over at Thursday evening’s event co-chairs, Deb Zwez and Judie Presar, Jordan added, “And then we partnered with these guys and went from there” to plan the red-carpet gala.
As a crowd of some 200 decked-out residents gathered beneath a tent on Willipie Street for dinner prior to the movie, Presar couldn’t help notice the one-night similarities between downtown Wapakoneta and red carpet premieres in New York or Hollywood.
“We’re playing with the big boys tonight,” she laughed.
Zwez said money raised from Thursday night’s event will be put toward making the events surrounding the 50th anniversary of the moon landing next summer one to be remembered.
But perhaps there will be another gala function in Wapakoneta prior to that.
“When this movie is nominated for an Oscar we will have an Oscar party and do it all again,” Zwez told the assembled crowd.
“First Man” is 2 hours and 20 minutes in length, and precious little of that time is devoted to the lunar landing. That story is well known: three NASA astronauts successfully land on the moon; Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin stroll the lunar surface; all three return to Earth safely.
Instead, the focus of the film is on what made Armstrong tick. Through Gosling’s portrayal, the astronaut is at times shown to be an articulate and well-prepared egghead, while at other times he exhibits a dry sense of humor and unexpected wit.
There are other moments in the film where Armstrong is portrayed as the ultimate family man, and others where he is the introspective loner who struggles with life’s daily challenges. A complex and driven man.
Equally notable was the film’s glimpse of the sociological events of the day. References to the so-called space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union and brief but informative clips of anti-war protests and civil demonstrations against the high price of space exploration give the film an important historical context.
Among those gathered for Thursday night’s gala in Wapakoneta, John Zwez knew Neil Armstrong as well or better than most.
“Neil’s mom was my Sunday school teacher,” Zwez chuckled.
But it was during his time as the curator/manager of the Armstrong Air and Space Museum that he became better acquainted the moon’s first human visitor.
Zwez started at the museum in Wapak even prior to its official opening in 1972 and retired as curator more than 30 years later. As someone familiar with the technology involved in space travel, Zwez was impressed with “First Man” and its depiction of the Gemini and Apollo space programs in general and of Armstrong, the man, in particular.
“I really enjoyed it,” Zwez said of the film. “I thought Ryan Gosling did an excellent job, although I kept thinking to myself, ‘Is that what Neil would have done?’
“But overall I thought the movie was pretty accurate, technologically. I thought it was done pretty well,” Zwez said. “I think it felt very personal to movie-goers.”
Zwez also hopes the movie will debunk the perception that Armstrong was aloof and reclusive.
“Over the years, I think Neil’s persona has been misrepresented. I hope people will see him as quiet and reserved, but someone who was not hiding anything,” Zwez said.
“He was the real deal. A real human being, and I think that’s portrayed in the movie.”
James R. Hansen, Fort Wayne, Indiana, native and history professor at Auburn University in Alabama, wrote an authorized biography of Armstrong with his 2005 “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” upon which the movie was based.
Hansen, who saw a screening of the movie at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week, told the (Fort Wayne) Journal-Gazette recently that he believes Gosling and “First Man” do well at capturing Armstrong’s modest nature — sometimes misinterpreted as reclusiveness or stand-offishness.
Even before its release, “First Man” was embroiled in controversy. Some reviewers took exception to the fact that there was no scene in the movie of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon’s surface. The opinion of some was that the omission was unpatriotic.
John Zwez disagrees. According to media reports, the star of the movie feels the same way.
“The flag is immaterial to the movie’s story,” Zwez said. “It’s a story of Neil and his journey through life. First and foremost, he was an engineer and a pilot. That was the ultimate to Neil.”
Gosling, in an interview with The Guardian, said he did not think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero. From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”
Tranquility base? If the film is any indication, it appears to be so.