Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong

In 1983, Tom Wolfe’s virtuoso chronicle of America’s original Mercury Seven astronauts, The Right Stuff, became the source material for one of the best movies of the 1980s.The macho tough guys in the film version created a joyously testosterone-laden cowboys in space masterpiece that later spawned Clint Eastwood’s even more macho, tough-guy, joyously testosterone-laden cowboys in space fairytale Space Cowboys. Other than astronauts in outer space, First Man has nothing in common with either of those films.

First Man is also not a disaster movie  à lathe great Apollo 13 or the tedious Gravity.  First Man is essentially a character study. While adventure, danger and glory are omnipresent, this movie is really about individuals and families dealing with fear and primal loss.

Some critics have opined that for a movie about mankind’s greatest adventure the film is too slow. The tension is fleeting and seldom edge of the seat paralyzing and there are almost no awe-inspiring CGI moments. But First Man isn’t Star Wars. It’s a story about an emotionally reserved guy doing a very dangerous job while coping with crushing personal tragedies and a strong wife who’s none too crazy about her husband’s profession. That story is told very well.  It’s just not a tale that’s likely to drag millions of teenagers into the Cineplex on Saturday night.

I remember watching the moon landing when I was 17. I remember being mesmerized by video of the Eagle as it touched down and by Armstrong’s first step onto the cratered surface. I remember “One small step for Man . . . ” I also remember being bored senseless by the endless hours of guys in white shirts at mission control telling us stuff we already knew or couldn’t possibly understand.

As spaceflight became somewhat more routine, and epoch-making moments all but disappeared, the subject lost its sense of wonder. Neil deGrasse Tyson notwithstanding, science isn’t necessarily spellbinding. That was the challenge First Man filmmakers faced. How do you tell a riveting story when your hero’s a stoic?

One way is to cast Ryan Gosling as your lead. The La La Land megastar hunk can play an emotional cripple when you need one. If you’ve never seen Lars and the Real Girl, find it. Now! For those of you who know this tiny gem, think of First Man’s Neil Armstrong as Lars in Space.  Equating one of America’s greatest national heroes with an autistic man-child might seem disrespectful, but what the hell, I loved Lars.

The movie’s, and Armstrong’s, emotional stability is provided by Claire Foy as as the astronaut’s wife, Janet. Dutiful in a 1960s wifely way, Ms. Armstrong is also the strength that keeps the family afloat. As the brilliant scientist prepares to blast off for the moon with a rocket strapped to his ass, Janet has to remind him to say goodbye to his boys . . . just in case, you know, they never see him again.  It’s not that he’s a thoughtless father. He’s just a little detached and it’s her job to bring him back to Earth–so to speak–every now and again. I’d never heard of Claire Foy. I expect we’ll be seeing more of her.

Speaking of La La Land, director Damien Chazelle has that one and fellow Oscar winner Whiplash on his resume. Chazelle’s made a career of bringing a bracing indie sensibility to mainstream movies. He’s proven that traditional stories can be told from fresh perspectives.

That being said, I was wasn’t enthralled with the director’s work in First Man. Facing a story that’s less exciting than moviegoers might expect, Chazelle employs a wildly unstable hand-held camera to simulate several stages of space-flight, including takeoff. I could have gone with about 10 seconds of the vomit-inducing effect rather than several minutes in recurring scenes.

Then there’s the soundtrack. In 1969 we were in the midst of pop music’s most dynamic era. Occasionally plodding, First Man could have used some of the energy generated by the Beatles, the Stones, or Zeppelin. Instead we get an innocuous soundtrack that’s barely noticeable. That was probably a conscious choice, though. This is a story about Neil Armstrong and I wonder if he even knew who the Beatles were. There’s nothing in this music to get between the astronaut and his mission.  

If you’re hoping for The Right Stuff or Star Trek, this isn’t your movie. If you enjoy a well-crafted and introspective true story about one of the greatest scientific achievements in history, see First Man.

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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