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Review: ‘First Man’ is another inspired effort from Damien Chazelle

I wrote a parents guide on “First Man” for The Buffalo News, but expanded that piece into the following review.

“First Man”

Directed by Damien Chazelle

Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, and Kyle Chandler

Rating: A-

One of the indelible movie-going moments from my childhood came in 1990, when my parents took me to see R-rated Civil War drama “Glory.” I was a 10-year-old with a deep interest in history, and while I certainly was not in the target audience, the film had a profound impact on me. It left me wanting to learn more. This is the power of historical cinema, and “First Man” is a fine example.

“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle’s look at the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong is strong, stirring stuff. While the recent Toronto International Film Festival selection is too pulse-pounding and emotionally complex for viewers younger than 12, teenagers should be spellbound and perhaps even inspired.

“First Man” is a you-are-there look at the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969. It was a process fraught with tragedy and calamity, and took a deep toll on Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling, “La La Land”), and his wife (Claire Foy, “The Crown”).

Viewers younger than 13 might have a difficult time connecting with this story of space exploration for many reasons — the historical setting, the deliberate pace, Gosling’s dorky haircut. But teens can and should see the film. While these younger audience members might see it as history, Chazelle’s use of (occasionally distracting) handheld camera and tight close-ups plunges the viewer into the action. The claustrophobia, the discomfort and the sense that every moment teeters on the edge of disaster make for an intense viewing experience. Teens will come away with a newfound respect for all it took to get to the Moon.

The film is rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language. The latter includes one use of the F-word; it comes during a marital argument, and packs a wallop. That alone should not preclude parents from bringing their teens to see the film. What must be noted, however, is that “First Man” is a somber epic, with a steady stream of upsetting deaths. None are graphic, but all are gut-punchers, specifically one involving a child.

Some will find the stoicism of Gosling’s Neil Armstrong a negative, but that won’t deter teenagers. If anything, Armstrong’s ability to bury his emotions and plunge ahead feels very much of-the-moment. “First Man” is also helped by stunning special effects work and strong performances from Gosling, Foy, and a top-notch supporting cast (Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit). It all makes for another cinematic victory for Chazelle following “Whiplash” and “La La Land.” In fact, “First Man” has far more in common with the former, Chazelle’s story of a young drummer and his abusive mentor, than the latter.

At just 33 years old, Chazelle has an Oscar win for Best Director behind him and a resume of three gems. With “First Man,” he’s directed a story of pain, sacrifice and, ultimately, triumph, that will resonate with audiences of varying ages. It’s the tribute Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the astronauts who came before them deserve.