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First Man ***

It’s a fascinating story and a good movie, but Armstrong is such a joyless bore that he’s sometimes hard to root for. 

Is it worth $10? Yes  

The biggest shortcoming with “First Man,” director Damien Chazelle and star Ryan Gosling’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning “La La Land,” is that the main character, Gosling’s Neil Armstrong, is a stiff. A bore. Joyless. We barely see him smile. Extremely intelligent and emotionally closed off, Armstrong lacks humor, warmth, and even affection for his family. When asked what extra item he wishes he could take to the moon on Apollo 11, he dryly replies, “more gas.”

Even if you understand why Neil is like this (and he has good reasons), he’s still a difficult protagonist to root for. The emotional heavy lifting is left to Claire Foy (“The Crown”) as Neil’s wife Janet, who cares for their two boys as Neil puts in long hours at NASA. Foy does what she can, but it’s hard to make an impact as the one-note nagging wife of a man risking his life for his work.

The story, written by Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) and based on the book of the same name by James R. Hansen, follows Neil from his start at NASA in the early 1960s through him stepping foot on the moon in July 1969. We see the failures and successes of NASA throughout the ‘60s, and enjoy some of the camaraderie of the men, particularly Neil’s relationship with Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll).

Although the story is fascinating, Chazelle’s pace is deliberate, intent on hitting the high and low points of the journey to the moon over the course of 141 minutes. Included in this are a handful of high-octane action scenes that are palm-sweatingly intense, which is impressive given that we know how the movie ends. Curiously, though, Chazelle often uses close-up and interior shots during the action; only rarely does he move far outside the rocket ship to give a master shot perspective. This immerses the viewer in the action, but robs of a greater understanding of what’s happening. A few more wide shots that would allow the viewer to get his/her bearings would’ve kept the action more engaging.

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More perspectives are offered in addition to the Armstrongs. NASA brass (Ciaran Hinds and Kyle Chandler), other astronauts (played by Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, among others), and even politicians concerned about the cost of the space program provide a complete picture of the circumstances in play. More scenes of the training would’ve been welcome – what goes into making these men proficient in flying a rocket, and the dangers therein, is inherently fascinating and could’ve used additional screen time. The trial and error of what worked and didn’t adds drama, but doesn’t inform so much as it shows the viewer, which isn’t as fun.

With expectations this high, and a final product this…merely good, it’s hard to imagine “First Man” getting the Oscar love many may presume given the pedigree of those involved. Take that out of the equation, though, and “First Man” is a solid drama on its own terms, one that takes us behind the scenes of one of the most talked-about events in American history. That’s pretty cool in itself.

Did you know?
Pablo Schreiber plays astronaut Jim Lovell; Tom Hanks played Lovell in the 1995 film “Apollo 13.”

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