MOVIE BUFF-ET: ‘First Man’ a riveting but draining retelling of the Space Race story

Universal Pictures

“First Man” is a difficult film for me.

On one hand, it is a marvelous piece of grounded and gritty filmmaking by director Damien Chazelle, featuring a cooly reserved performance by Ryan Gosling and a rawboned one by Claire Foy as astronaut Neil Armstrong and his first wife Janet.

I have little doubt that all three will be nominated for Academy Awards for this technically marvelous and emotionally draining depiction of the United State’s efforts in the Space Race from the vantage point of Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and his wife.

New In Local Theaters

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The film is about the mission, but it is also about the toll it took on Armstrong’s already tumultuous life and those of the other astronauts who sacrificed so much to accomplish their mission. The Armstrongs lost a young daughter to cancer just before Neil joined Project Gemini which followed Project Mercury as the NASA’s second human spaceflight program. It led to Project Apollo, which ultimately placed Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Still), and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas) on the moon.

The movie, shot largely in riveting closeups by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, was a bold and arresting choice. The film is shown through a documentarian’s eye making the movie seem almost too real. The editing by Tom Cross and the sound production create a claustrophobic and unrelenting atmosphere that’s as uncomfortable as it is engrossing.

If the 33-year-old Chazelle hadn’t already proved to be a modern master with “Whiplash” in 2014 and “La La Land” in 2016, “First Man” cements his status in my mind as one of the top two or three directors working today. It’s exciting to know that Chazelle has a long career ahead of him.

So what is so difficult about such a masterfully made film?

That’s simple. I didn’t really like the movie.

As contradictory as it sounds, I recognize that “First Man” might be one of the best films of the year, but it just didn’t fit my personal taste.

Call me sappy and sentimental, and I’ll answer, but I have no problem admitting that I prefer Ron Howard’s glamorized “Apollo 13” from 1995 and Philip Kaufman’s more heroic but just as harrowing “The Right Stuff” from 1983 as my space jams.

Given the choice, I would rather watch Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” again than endure “First Man” a second time.

The in-your-face strength of the film yet the coolness of its tone might be what was so off-putting to me.

That said, I suspect the more the viewer knows and love the history and lore surrounding the Space Race, the more you will appreciate and enjoy the film.

“First Man” is a finely crafted film in every respect. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 21 min.
Grade: A-

Classic Corner

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Columbia Pictures

If you need an escape from the current state of the national political scene, why not take a trip back to a simpler time?

How about to 1939, which happens to be one of the greatest year of movies that Hollywood ever produced?

“Gone With the Wind” almost swept the Oscars that year, but director Frank Capra’s ode to the best intentions of our founding fathers, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, garnered 11 nominations and won Best Writing for an Original Story.
In conjunction with Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies, the Malco Razorback Cinema will be showing the film at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Wednesday.

The film is one of Capra’s best movies and features one of Jimmy Stewart’s best performances. That’s saying a lot in both cases. Jean Arthur, Claude Rains and Edward Arnold also give standout performances among a cast filled with familiar faces to old-timey movie fans.

Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a wide-eyed local activist who runs a children’s newspaper. He is picked to be the stooge for a political machine when it needs to replace a senator who died in office.

When Smith arrives in Washington, Stewart is naïve and overwhelmed by the monumental honor and task set before him, but he’s not weak or corrupt as his home-state political machine soon finds out as he mounts a filibuster to make sure his state finds out how corrupt its elected officials really are.

One good man stands up to fight for what’s right despite the crushing power of his opposition.

Yes, it’s Capra corn, but it sure is tasty.