The red glow of a rocket proves Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum’s on-screen chemistry

Trailers make “Fly Me to the Moon” look cutesy 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, pitting the honest-to-a-fault NASA launch director responsible for putting Apollo 11 into orbit (a serious Channing Tatum) against a mendacious Madison Avenue spin doctor (Scarlett Johansson, deliciously sly). Set in the first half of 1969, director Greg Berlanti’s high-concept screwball comedy prizes chemistry over history, twisting the facts to suggest a new set of stakes for the operation, one in which romance fuels a rocket to the moon.

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

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At the time, NASA’s troubled endeavor had a double meaning: It was about achieving the impossible and beating the Soviet Union in space. And yet the opposite of communism is not democracy, but capitalism. Gilroy’s crisp script illustrates how the U.S. government used the strategies of the “Mad Men” era (minus most of the misogyny) to sell the moon mission to the masses.

It would literally take a rocket scientist like Tatum’s Air Force pilot-turned-NASA team captain Cole Davis to get America to 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—such was the PR component to its success. In acknowledging that, Gilroy and Berlanti capture a watershed moment 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 no one believes it,” Kelly tells Cole. “And a lie is still a lie, even if everyone believes it.”

To be fair, there’s little chance that a film like this would have flown in 1969 (remember, that was the year of the Manson murders, when “Easy Rider” became a surprise box office hit and the X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” won Best Picture). It’s unusual even by today’s standards, since romantic comedies have been all but relegated to streaming — which is where this Apple original was destined until test screenings proved it could sustain a theatrical release. With its retro-styled polyester costumes and relatively chaste love story, Berlanti’s film harks back to an earlier, more innocent time even as it presents a country in turmoil: The Vietnam War divided Americans at home, and President Nixon was desperate to fulfill Kennedy’s promise to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Meet Moe Burkus (Woody Harrelson), a shady government agent tasked with stirring up conspiracies. He shows up at a Manhattan bar and offers Kelly (who’s spent her life lying and selling) a chance to redeem herself. Her assignment is to get America to support Apollo 11, which means convincing not only the public but also a handful of politicians who are delaying a much-needed vote on Capitol Hill.

From the moment she appears on screen — sporting a fake pregnancy belly at an ad agency pitch meeting — Johansson makes it clear where Kelly’s morals lie, playing a corporate con artist to Tatum’s overgrown Boy Scout. In a scene straight out of “Top Gun,” the two characters meet at a Cocoa Beach, Florida, roadside diner the night before they cross paths at the Kennedy Space Center.

“You’re on fire,” Cole tells her, and Kelly dodges the line, not realizing that her notebook is, in fact, on fire. The next day, the two are considerably cooler around each other, with Cole considering that whatever she’s been hired to do is a distraction from the task at hand, which is to get his men safely to the moon. (He’s still bearing the brunt of the deaths of the three Apollo 1 astronauts.) Gilroy’s script may not be historically accurate, but it’s thoroughly researched and ingeniously structured, using forgotten or little-publicized aspects of the mission in unexpected ways.

Contrast that with 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 likely to be shown in classrooms, but I found it infinitely more entertaining — and more revealing about American society. The modern age is all about selling, and even such an important endeavor had to be sold to the people. After Kelly offers NASA-themed partnerships with some of America’s most popular brands (from Omega watches to Fruit of the Loom underwear), 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. For those at the top, it’s really about ideology, and the film makes that point without sounding cynical. Berlanti is a talented small-screen genius who brings a populist, Ron Howard-esque sensibility to the assignment — more “Quiz Show” than “Apollo 13,” as he delivers a nostalgic (if somewhat budget-minded) look at a time when the country willingly accepted what it saw on TV.

So Moe goes along with Kelly’s idea to televise the moon landing, demanding that they stage the historic moment in a controlled environment. Moe essentially blackmails her into playing along, which would be an even greater betrayal of Cole’s trust than she’s already committed by casting actors to play him and chief engineer Henry Smalls (Ray Romano) in front of the cameras. But Kelly has no choice, so she enlists an old friend, the demanding director Lance Vespertine (Jim Rash, flamboyantly over-the-top), to do what even Kubrick wouldn’t do.

Given how important honesty 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 comes in. Ultimately, “Fly Me to the Moon” has only one thing to sell: that beneath Kelly and Cole’s rapid-fire dialogue and combative flirtation, there’s a mutual attraction that keeps us guessing. We already know how the moon mission ends, but we never get tired of staring at stars like this.

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