Tuesday, October 16, 2018

First Man

When I look back at the times in my life that represent moments of proud achievement, those moments were almost always followed by a curious sense of melancholy. This used to bother me a great deal. Why do I feel sad after I’ve worked so hard to accomplish this goal? What’s missing? I’ve since learned that this is quite common. After achieving something you’ve worked so hard for, it’s not unusual to be left with a feeling of longing. What the hell do I do now? Where do I go from here? What now?

That feel of achievement-based melancholy is represented so well in Damien Chazelle’s new, appropriately thrilling and patient film, First Man.

The backdrop of First Man is America’s involvement in the space race throughout the 1960s, which eventually led to the U.S. putting two men on the moon. But the movie is really about Neil Armstrong. That reserved, complicated, misunderstood astronaut who worked tirelessly to achieve a goal, and ultimately lived out that goal for the entire world to see and remember forever.
The film spends its lengthy, but never stale, running time tracking Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) through his adventures at NASA, while attempting to stay present at home with his steadfast wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and their children. We’ve seen the space race depicted with strong effect before, namely in The Right StuffApollo 13 and From the Earth to the Moon. And while the spectacle of First Man certainly deserves to be mentioned alongside those works, Chazelle’s insistence on capturing Armstrong at home helps anchor the film in an unexpected level of emotion.

If you’ve seen Chazelle’s two previous films, Whiplash and La La Land, it’s no secret that the young director knows how to construct and execute a thrilling set piece. Every air and spacecraft sequence in First Man, from its astounding, nearly dialogue-free opening, to its lunar surface conclusion, is jaw dropping. The bombastic sounds within the aircraft, the radiating heat, the tight camerawork – it all roots these sequences in the pure danger of these real life missions. These missions were not easy work, nor were they fun. They were scary and new and potentially fatal. First Man, perhaps better than any film before, really helps the audience understand what it is like in a cramped air and spacecraft. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (who won an Oscar for shooting La La Land), and editor Tom Cross (who won an Oscar for cutting Whiplash), deserve endless praise for First Man’s ceaselessly tense and claustrophobic design.
But the heart of the movie is at home. If you watch real interviews with Neil Armstrong, it’s clear that he was a reserved guy. He didn’t talk a lot, and he always skirted praise with genuinely humility. He was prone to giving credit to everyone, as opposed to accepting it solely for himself. As depicted in First Man, this sense of restraint followed Armstrong everywhere. Gosling conveys Armstrong’s repression with stoic looks, and careful gestures. His scenes with Foy, who consistently plays Janet with a strength that was so compelling to watch, represent some of the finest work both actors have delivered. The scenes with the Armstrong family have, at times, the semblance of the joy found in a Terrence Malick sequence, and can quickly be replaced with the emotional confusion of an Ingmar Bergman film. I honestly didn’t know much about Armstrong’s personal life before watching this movie, but I so appreciated the quiet insight that Chazelle and Gosling presented in the film.

What I appreciate most about the film, though, is that it depicts many of the astronauts of NASA, particularly Armstrong, as men who did not derive a great amount of pleasure from their work. Gosling’s Armstrong rarely smiles when mentioning his job (or at all). He’s exact, humble, and serious. He’s lost friends in the space race, and the looming threat of his missions constantly consumes him, at home, in the office, and inside the air and spacecraft.
The event depicted in the film’s conclusion will surprise no one. And that’s the trick of movies based on such a well-known story: since there is no mystery of what is to come, it’s not what is depicted, but how it is depicted that matters. The moon landing is an equally ferocious and quiet experience, handled with great intensity and restraint by Chazelle. Yet the sequence concludes with a moment I didn’t anticipate, and it’s certainly something that shouldn’t be ruined in print. I will say that the emotional impact of this moment left me profoundly moved, and as far as I’m concerned, the scene is one of the crowning achievements of 2018 in film.

First Man isn’t about walking on the moon. It’s about a repressed, thoughtful, complicated man who worked tirelessly to do his job, and do it well. But at what cost? Is there joy to be found in achieving something no one else ever will? Or are you alone, separated from those you love, without a single word to say to capture your feelings? A-

12 comments:

  1. This is currently my 2nd favorite film of the year (behind BlacKkKlansman) right now as I'm in awe of the technical work of the film including the sound. The way things sound inside the capsule kind of scared me a bit as I wanted to be an astronaut as a kid. If I had shown my younger self this film and Gravity, I think I would've traumatized my younger self.

    I love what Ryan Gosling does in the film as that air of restraint in his performance allows him to do a lot by doing so little. Especially the scenes on the moon where you don't see his face for a while but you kind of understand what he's feeling. For me, Whiplash is still Chazelle's best film but this is a close second as I'm now looking forward to what he does next.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I could not agree with this comment more. From that opening scene on, First Man had me. What Chazelle did with sound was incredible. I mean, really, if this doesn't win both sound Oscars, I'm not sure why those categories even exist.

      Delete
  2. Great review. I enjoyed this more than I thought I would, but I really hate the choices Chazelle made when directing it. All the close ups were too much and it started to make me resent it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! I hear that, for sure. I really enjoyed the claustrophobic cinematography, the way it trapped us into Armstrong's mind. But, not unlike the tight camerawork of mother!, a look like this certainly isn't for everyone. It's so damn jarring to watch a movie with little or no master shots!

      Delete
  3. I have to say, this is probably the dullest film I've ever seen in the cinema- but I always love reading your thoughts. I'd say comparisons to some of the great film-makers are a little grandiose for this but hey, you loved it, and that comes through infectiously man. How many more releases before Chazelle gets his own director focus, a-la Iniarittu?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really appreciate this comment, Mark. So often, if someone doesn't like a movie, they tend to bash the reviewer for reasons I've never been able to identify. Ultimately, we like what we like, and don't like what we don't. I will always respect your opinion and perspective of movies. And hmmm, maybe one more movie from Chazelle? That way I'd have five to review.

      Delete
  4. Glad you enjoyed this as much as I did, thought is was a great exploration not just of space but of the old traditional ideal of reserved and closed-ff masculinity. My god those models, miniatures, and in-camera effects! More practical effects in movies these days please, made the 'One giant leap' tactile and real. Listening to the audiobook by James Hansen and Gosling nailed the guy to a 'T', really honors his legacy as a reluctant icon of human endeavor. Justin Hurwitz's score is outstanding as well, Chazelle and his team are proving to be some of the most versatile filmmaking teams working today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hell. Yes. Love this comment. And I of course adored all the in-camera, practical effects as well. I really wish more people would do it this way, as opposed to relying in CG, but oh well. I'm really glad you liked this one too!

      Delete
  5. That's a beautiful write up! Sadly I doubt I will enjoy this movie. Gosling is so hit or miss for me in dramatic roles and I think Chazelle is getting way too much praise, yes Whiplash was great but I think LLL is one of the most overhyped movies in the last 20 years

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much! I can tell you, First Man and La La Land do not feel like they were made by the same person. They are polar opposite in style and execution. First Man is much more aligned with Whiplash than La La Land. Just my two cents. And Gosling is in full-on pensive Gosling mode here. No lashing out or big speeches. Very reserved. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it, for sure.

      Delete
  6. Nice review! As a huge space nerd, this movie disappointed me a little. The space exploration scenes were stunning, and at one point, I felt nauseous. Technically, those sequences definitely have the power to make someone scared of going into space or do a double-take if they wanted to be an astronaut. I felt like Gosling was great, especially in his restraint and poise considering the beginning of the film and ending. However, I expected more from a script point-of-view - a little more surrounding the missions and the work they had to do in order to get to Apollo 11, versus a repetitive cycle of the astronauts who were killed. It works the way Chazelle intended with defying the sacrifices these guys made and what Armstrong was facing...But this felt like Chazelle's most tedious film, to the point where I was quite uninterested, a little bored even.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally get what you're saying. I also thought this movie would be more about the process, but it seems like Chazelle was chiefly concerned with the telling the story of the man. A lot about this movie surprised me, especially how it was narratively set up. Thanks for the comment, Katy!

      Delete