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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Reel Rundown: Rewriting of moon landing history in ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ powered mostly by feel-good rom-com

Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum in “Fly Me to the Moon.”  (Courtesy of Sony)
By Dan Webster For The Spokesman-Review

All romantic comedies, especially the great ones, follow the same basic template: They feature explicit plot conceits and rhythms.

That’s not to say that “Fly Me to the Moon,” directed by Greg Berlanti and starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum, is great. But it certainly qualifies as good, which is about all you can expect from most of the corporate-driven product that plays these days on screens big and small.

Johansson stars as Kelly Jones, a whiz at marketing whose methods are built on having a loose affiliation with actual truth. This trait makes her the perfect candidate for a job outlined by Moe Berkus (Woody Harrelson), a shadowy government figure.

And what is the job? Well, the year is 1969, and it’s near the end of the decade in which the late President John F. Kennedy had promised that the United States would land an American on the moon.

Yet mired in the Vietnam War, the country is facing other issues. And many Americans, not to mention several members of Congress who represent them, have lost interest in the so-called space race that Russia appears to be winning.

Kelly’s job, then, is to reignite the interest, by whatever means necessary. Her talent for sales, though, conflicts with the straight-laced attitude of Cole Davis (Tatum), the Korean War veteran who runs the launch program for the Apollo 11 moon mission.

Kelly, you see, begins at once to re-create the NASA project in an image that has more to do with movie-star fantasy than anything resembling reality. She begins casting actors to play real-life characters such as deputy launch director Henry Smalls (Ray Romano) and even Cole himself.

But the main task that Moe presents Kelly with, and which the film uses to address a popular and long-held conspiracy theory, is to find a way to fake the actual moon landing. It is imperative, Moe insists, that the country not fail – as Apollo 1 did in a fiery accident some two years before.

How Kelly accomplishes this, while navigating a burgeoning relationship with Cole and reconciling her own checkered past, is at the heart of what Berlanti has put on the screen.

Clearly, the basis of “Fly Me to the Moon” is fantasy. The team-written screenplay takes the basis of a true story and, like the character Kelly does, invents a plotline that imaginatively rewrites history according to rom-com dictates.

Thus the setting is authentic, with some scenes shot at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The same is true of many of the screenplay’s references (especially regarding the Apollo 1 disaster). And yet the film itself follows the standard plotlines: couple meets cute, their initial attraction is complicated by conflicting work demands, larger concerns for both make matters even more difficult, until … well, not to provide too many spoilers but, yes, the film does end with a kiss.

Berlanti, who has specialized in rom-coms as diverse as 2010’s “Life As We Know It” and 2018’s “Love, Simon,” keeps things moving well enough. He blends canned newsreel footage with a period-specific soundtrack and an impressive array of stylisms, from split-screen imagery to computer-effects, that helps capture the sense and energy of 1969.

As for the cast, Tatum and Johansson are natural movie stars. And while Tatum’s role requires him to be taciturn, he does imbue Cole with the necessary feel of authority. Johansson, meanwhile, has to capture a far more complicated character, including affecting different accents. And she has never been better.

In the end, “Fly Me to the Moon” is an enjoyable watch, particularly for anyone who was alive during the Apollo 11 mission and who remembers the effect that the moon landing had on the country and the world.

As for the film’s salute to the conspiracy I referred to above, it comes when Kelly addresses her qualms over hiring the director for the faked moon landing scenario.

“I think we should have gotten Kubrick,” she says. Cue the moans and groans.