‘Fly Me to the Moon’ Review: A Rocket’s Red Glare Gives Proof to Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum’s Screen Chemistry

Trailers make “Fly Me to the Moon” look cute at best, when in fact it’s quite clever: a smarter-than-it-sounds, space-age sparring match of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day variety, in which the honest-to-a-fault NASA launch director responsible for sending Apollo 11 into orbit (a straight-faced Channing Tatum) goes head-to-head with a mendacious Madison Avenue spin doctor (Scarlett Johansson, delightfully wily). Set during the first half of 1969, director Greg Berlanti’s high-concept screwball comedy values chemistry over history, bending the facts to suggest a fresh set of stakes for the operation, where romance fuels a rocket to the moon.

For decades, questions have dogged the Apollo 11 project. Who really won the space race? (Neil Armstrong may have been first to step foot on the moon, but the Soviets actually beat America into space.) Did NASA fake the moon landing? (Skeptics still insist it was staged, either by Stanley Kubrick or someone else, for publicity purposes.) Story credit goes to Keenan Flynn and Bill Kirstein, as screenwriter Rose Gilroy takes these doubts and extrapolates them into what the film itself might call an “alternative version” of events — one that puts authenticity itself on the line.

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At the time, NASA’s beleaguered undertaking had a dual significance: It was about both achieving the impossible and beating the Soviet Union in space. And yet, the opposite of communism isn’t democracy, but capitalism. Gilroy’s fresh-take script illustrates how the U.S. government leveraged the strategies of the “Mad Men” era (minus most of the misogyny) to market the lunar mission to the masses.

It might literally take a rocket scientist like Tatum’s Air Force pilot-turned-NASA team captain Cole Davis to get America on the moon, but without the brains of Kelly Jones (Johansson’s quick-witted, but fictional character), Apollo 11 might never have gotten off the ground — that’s how vital the PR component was to its success. By acknowledging that, Gilroy and Berlanti capture a turning point in American history, when spin became the coin of the realm … which seems all the more relevant in light of recent events.

“The truth is still the truth, even if nobody believes it,” Kelly tells Cole. “And a lie is still a lie, even if everybody believes it.”

Frankly, there’s little chance a movie like this would have flown in 1969 (remember, that was the year of the Manson murders, when “Easy Rider” became a surprise blockbuster and X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” won best picture). It’s unusual even by contemporary standards, when rom-coms have been all but relegated to streaming — where this Apple original was destined until test screenings showed it could support a theatrical run. With its retro-styled polyester costumes and relatively chaste love story, Berlanti’s film reaches back to an earlier, more innocent time, even as it presents a country in turmoil: The Vietnam War was dividing Americans at home, and President Nixon desperately wanted to make good on Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Enter Moe Burkus (Woody Harrelson), a shadowy government agent tasked with instigating conspiracies. He shows up at a Manhattan bar and offers Kelly (who’s been lying selling her entire life) a chance to redeem herself. Her assignment is to bring America around to supporting Apollo 11, which means convincing not just the public, but also a handful of politicians holding out on a much-needed vote on Capitol Hill.

From the moment she appears on screen — wearing a fake pregnancy bump to an ad-agency pitch meeting — Johansson shows where Kelly’s morals lie. She’s playing a corporate con woman to Tatum’s overgrown boy scout. In a scene straight out of “Top Gun,” the two characters meet at a roadside diner in Cocoa Beach, Fla., the night before they’re destined to cross paths at Kennedy Space Center.

“You’re on fire,” Cole tells her, and Kelly deflects the line, not realizing that, in fact, her notebook is blazing. The next day, the pair are considerably cooler around one another, as Cole considers whatever she’s been hired to do a distraction to the task at hand, which is getting his men safely to the moon. (He still carries the deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts on his conscience.) Gilroy’s script may not be historically accurate, but it is rigorously researched and ingeniously structured, using forgotten or little-publicized aspects of the mission in unexpected ways.

Compare that to Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” Hollywood’s more overtly hagiographic look at Apollo 11 (and Armstrong in particular). “Fly Me to the Moon” isn’t nearly as likely to be shown in classrooms, but I found it infinitely more entertaining — and more revealing of American society. The modern era is all about selling, and even such an important endeavor had to be sold to the people. After Kelly offers NASA-themed partnerships to some of America’s most popular brands (from Omega watches to Fruit of the Loom undies), Cole tells her he has no intention of turning his rocket into a giant billboard.

He’s an idealist who just doesn’t get it, as Moe later makes clear. The space race is only nominally about scientific achievement. To the folks at the top, it’s really about ideology, and the movie makes that point without coming off cynical. Berlanti’s an accomplished small-screen talent who brings a populist, Ron Howard-like sensibility to the assignment — more “Quiz Show” than “Apollo 13,” as he takes a nostalgic (if somewhat budget-constrained) look at a time when the country willingly accepted what they saw on TV.

That’s why Moe takes to Kelly’s idea of televising the moon landing, insisting that they stage the historical moment in a controlled environment. Moe essentially blackmails her into playing along, which amounts to an even greater betrayal of Cole’s trust than she’s already done by casting actors to play him and lead engineer Henry Smalls (Ray Romano) for the cameras. But Kelly has no choice, and so she enlists an old friend, high-maintenance director Lance Vespertine (Jim Rash, flamboyantly over-the-top), to do what even Kubrick wouldn’t.

Considering how important sincerity is to Cole, it’s hard to imagine Kelly’s budding relationship with him surviving such a deception. But that’s where the chemistry between the two characters kicks in. In the end, “Fly Me to the Moon” only needs to sell one thing: that beneath Kelly and Cole’s fast-paced dialogue and combative flirtation, there exists a mutual attraction compelling enough to keep us guessing. We already know how the lunar mission turns out, but never tire of gazing upon stars such as these.

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