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FIRST MAN: 3 ½ STARS. “It’s a small story about a giant leap.”

We all know how “First Man” will end. No surprises there. What may be surprising is the portrayal of its titular character, American astronaut and hero Neil Armstrong. It’s a small story about a giant leap.

Focussing on the years 1961 to 1968 “First Man” introduces us to Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as an engineer and envelope-pushing pilot. When an X-15 test flight gives him a glimpse of space he becomes obsessed with going further. When his three-year-old daughter dies of a brain tumour he turns his grief inward, throwing himself at work. Becoming a NASA Gemini Project astronaut over the next seven years he fulfils the dream of President Kennedy 1962, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” speech. Alongside Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), he begins a journey that will take him to the moon and back.

“First Man” is based on one of mankind’s greatest achievements and yet feels muted on the big screen. Deliberately paced, it nails the bone-rattling intensity of the early flights, the anxiety felt by the loved ones left behind as the astronauts risk everything to beat the Russians to the moon, and yet it never exactly takes flight.

Part history lesson, part simulator experience, it doesn’t deliver the characters necessary to feel like a complete experience.

Gosling is at his most restrained here as an analytical man who loves his family but is so stoic he answers his son’s question, “Do you think you’re coming back from the moon,” with an answer better suited to the boardroom than the dinner table. “We have every confidence in the mission,” he says. “There are risks but we have every reason to believe we’ll be coming back.” He is buttoned-down and yet not completely detached. His daughter’s memory never strays from his mind, even if he never discusses her death with his wife, played by an underused Claire Foy. Gosling embraces Armstrong’s fortitude but has stripped the character down to the point where he is little more than a distant man of few words.

“First Man” contains some thrilling moments but for the most part is like the man himself, stoic and understated.

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