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First Man Movie Review

'First Man' Isn't the Right Stuff
"First Man" chronicles an extraordinary event and piece of history, which was achieved by an ordinary man. This is an interesting dichotomy to explore, which director Damien Chazelle aims to do and comes up with mixed results.

Chazelle, fresh off his Oscar win for directing "La La Land," takes on the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong, which is another ambitious undertaking for the young director. Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer from the book by James R. Hansen, "First Man" is a snapshot into the life of a reserved man who felt he was called to do something at any cost.

Early on in the movie, Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) tragically lose their young daughter after an illness. Devastated, as any parents would be, Armstrong and Janet grieve in different ways. He applies to work with NASA's Project Gemini, which would serve as his audition for the inevitable Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Along for the ride is a strong supporting cast without much to do, including Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke and Shea Whigham. However, Stoll's Buzz Aldrin offers an upbeat contrast to Gosling's stoic Armstrong.

There are two stories at hand throughout "First Man": Armstrong's mission, and his home life. The domestic scenes, anchored by Foy in a grossly underwritten role, are mostly sluggish and uninviting because there's no real soul on screen. These scenes aren’t fleshed out, serving as a checklist of events rather than key moment's in Armstrong's life. There are passages of time in mere moments, and it might take a beat to catch up with the movie.

It's indisputable that "First Man" is a technical achievement because, as he showed with "La La Land," Chazelle doesn't really like to go small. Even "Whiplash," a gritty independent feature set in the world of competitive jazz, felt much bigger and more thrilling than you would expect. Here, his wizardry is on full display with a much bigger canvas to paint on. It's not hard to get caught up in some of the bigger moments of "First Man," but others feel suffocating as he shoots most of the scenes in extreme close-ups. To call some of the scenes out of focus would a bit of an exaggeration but there are times where it's not entirely sure what we are supposed to be focusing on.

But, of course, everything is leading up to the moment that cemented Armstrong's legacy in the history books. The entire moon landing sequence is almost worthy of the price of admission because it's gorgeous and thrilling, and Chazelle finally allows a bit of emotion to break through. At 140 minutes, it's never good for a film to only come alive towards the end.

"First Man" is a strange beast of conflicting emotions. It's big in scope and technically grand, depicting this monumental moment. Everything about the story and presentation is big, so it's a bit disappointing that it all comes off a bit lifeless. Armstrong was reluctant to be in the spotlight, and Gosling portrays him well, but "First Man" doesn't offer much worthy of grasping on to.


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