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ONE SMALL MISSTEP FOR MANKIND?

‘First Man’ lags in box office sales, but is worth watching

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Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong in the newest space exploration movie, “First Man.”

Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong in the newest space exploration movie, “First Man.”

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong in the newest space exploration movie, “First Man.”

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As a kid, I never really had an astronaut phase. I liked the concept of outer space and other planets, but even my all too optimistic mind couldn’t imagine visiting them for a living. I think this was due, in part, to the fact that I never saw that many movies about space.

In an era where NASA’s research is no longer literally a matter of national security, the American public mostly relies on pop culture to keep us interested in the universe beyond our world. In the first 20 years of my existence,

I only saw two movies that depict the American space program: “Space Buddies,” in which Air Bud’s children accidentally go to space, and “Space Chimps,” an animated movie in which, well, you can probably guess.

“First Man” is the polar opposite of those films. In fact, though it’s only rated PG-13, I would caution all parents to not bring their children to see this movie. If kids aren’t bored silly by some of the character-heavy moments, they’ll be horrified at several of the scenes where the action picks up.

If you really want to use this film to inspire future astronauts, buy a Blu-ray copy, and play only the first scene and the last few. For adults, on the other hand, the theatrical experience is definitely the way to go.

From the first minute, “First Man” grips the viewer. Gone is the rhythmic polish of director Damien Chazelle’s previous films. Where watching “La La Land” gave a feeling of floating along, some distance away from the main protagonists, “First Man” shoves the viewer right in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong.

The camera shakes erratically, and the view is mostly of the inside of the craft. Just like the astronauts, the audience is limited to dinky little windows to glimpse the rare view outside. Adding to the claustrophobia, the orchestral swells that would score flight scenes in other movies are muted here, letting every metallic creak and groan of the equipment ring out, uncontested.

For a film exploring a truly groundbreaking event, “First Man” is admirably committed to realism. The film’s tone often feels like the version of the story as Neil Armstrong would have retold it. 

Ryan Gosling portrays the movie’s eponymous astronaut with stoic professionalism. As the story progresses, it’s clear that Armstrong sees his job as no more special than anyone else’s.

Where Buzz Aldrin’s (Corey Stoll) enthusiasm for the public side of the job borders on boorish, Gosling’s Armstrong is withdrawn, and hyper-focused on the mission at hand. When he explains to his sons that he might not return from space, the tone echoes that of a press conference from earlier in the movie.

That’s not to say the tone is all grim. Really, it’s quite the opposite. Ryan Gosling may have been overshadowed by his co-star in his previous outing under Chazelle’s direction, but here he gets to shine. Both he and his counterpart, Claire Foy, superbly work through the moments of tragedy and levity in the lives of the Armstrong family.

The relationship of Neil and Janet Armstrong is the emotional core of the movie, and the two leads deliver everything a viewer could want.

If this review so far has bored you, you might, unfortunately, feel the same way about the film.

As the lukewarm box office numbers of the past few weeks have shown, emotional family dramas with some cool space stuff sprinkled in aren’t for everybody. It’s a shame, because that space stuff is best experienced on the biggest screen possible.

The last scenes, depicting the fateful Apollo 11 mission, tone down the grit of earlier flight scenes. Chazelle lets the audience breathe a sigh of relief, and take in the full mystique and beauty of the unearthly destination.

Until Elon Musk gets his space tours up and running, the best way to experience the moon is on an IMAX screen. You can still catch “First Man” on those screens for at least another week, and even if you have a passing interest in the space race, I think you should.

The film may have failed to launch financially, but Huston, I don’t have a problem recommending it.

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ONE SMALL MISSTEP FOR MANKIND?