Wasn’t that Early Man from a few months ag- Just checking to see if you were paying attention. As implied by the title, First Man is an abbreviated biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong – the first man to walk on the Moon – arriving courtesy of director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) and his muse of boyishly-expressionless stoicism Ryan Gosling.
Something about that sounds… alarmingly “spot-on.” Yeah, you can say that again. If you know both your NASA lore and your recently-popular Millennial actor/director bromance-duos you know thats damn near an ideal pairing: Gosling powering through tasks of intense difficulty and concentration wearing Resting Terminator Face really does seem to be Chazelles favorite thing in the world to put on film, and Neil Armstrong of course was infamous for having done the COOLEST THING A HUMAN BEING HAD EVER DONE… EVER and yet never once before or after betraying that he thought it (or anything else, really) was all that big of a deal. So this is very much “Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela” levels of appropriate casting.
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How does the movie around him work out? Having admired but not loved both mens prior collaborations, First Man represents the first time Ive really felt unreservedly onboard the Damien Chazelle train – its a confident film that ably balances the technology/science/history lesson aspects and muscular human drama aspects of any good early space program movie; feels authentic and subtle in its period details without going overboard on nostalgic indulgence and pulls out the stops for Big Epic Moments when theyre called for. And in terms of central performance its probably the best use any individual filmmaker has made of Goslings unique temperment as a cinematic instrument since at least Drive – its honestly hard to imagine any other actor of his generation so realistically embodying the restrained dialed-back countenance of men of this particular generation (though he’s also backed up by a full-on Murderers Row of current Hollwood’s best Modern Guys Who Look Like Early-60s Guys character actors: you know, Kyle Chandler Brian dArcy, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin – theyre all here.
How does it fare outside the central performance? …less solidly, to be honest. Though not damningly so in the end. Where it goes a little bit askew is in trying to give an “identity” to Armstrongs bottled-up stoicism. Other tellings have opted to contrast him with the more personable Aldrin (here played as something of a well-meaning but tactless comic foil by Stoll) or present him as an unknowable, enigmatic figure whose almost robotic discomfort as a social animal is what made him a kind of “predestined” ideal moonwalker; First Man zeroes in on a more contemporary, conventional-feeling reading where Armstrong is haunted (in a few scenes literally) by the loss of his daughter to childhood cancer and driven moonward in her memory because… well, thats sort of the tricky part: The two threads dont really come together and were not removed enough from Armstrong as a character for it to feel like a proper mystery instead of just an iffy connection; teasing some cursory parallels and tokens that – if they were to have basis in fact – don’t feel like anything either Gosling’s Armstrong or the real one wouldve been broadcasting for everyone to recognize so openly.
But that doesn’t sink it for you? A few times it felt like it might, but to the films credit, First Man only gestures in the direction of establishing an explicit relationship – symbolic or otherwise – between the lost girl and the moonshot. Attempting to synthesize Armstrongs persona to withdrawn because personal of loss doesnt totally work, but broader narrative spinning out from that characterization very much does: an attempt to do a test-of-faith/come-home-to-Jesus storyline – but for STEM.
The clip claims to come from the “cutting room floor of the film editing department of the Texas State film production company, marked between 1966-1972”.
Come again? It sneaks up a bit, but the eventual idea at play is that Armstrongs singular commitment to the value of knowledge, math, technology etc as pursuits in and of themselves have been shaken to their core by the realization that no amount of charts, tests, notebooks full of numbers or doing everything right was enough to thwart cancer; and the film thus posits that the quest to achieve a once-thought-impossible feat of human advancement becomes for him a way to reaffirm that the world can be made to work the way that its supposed to and that these skills and vocations hes committed to arent a waste.
So… it’s heavy. Does it earn it? It gets there, yes. The psuedo-documentary-style space and tech scenes all look really good, I never wouldve guessed Justin Hurwitz had THIS kind of score in him but he does, Claire Foy is very good as Janet Shearon, Armstrongs wife (shes turning out to be a legit chameleon of actress) – a fairly tough role considering how many films of late have had to retread the “secretly-complex lives of quietly-suffering women behind the Great Men of History” ground. And when the time comes… I really did buy the feelings-expressed-unfeelingly bit from Gosling MUCH more than I have in previous recent variations.
First Man Found Its Way to Patriotism Without Fetishizing the Flag
Okay, but aren’t you just one of those guys who loves every space movie? I mean… not EVERY space movie?
Video: Watch Ryan Gosling Act as Neil Armstrong in First Man | Anatomy of a Scene
I’ve heard you defend Armageddon. Everything BEFORE they actually go to space really is almost the third best Michael Bay movie, though! Fun training sequences, heck of a cast between Willis, Affleck, Wilson, Buscemi, Thornton, Fichtner, Liv Tyler, Peter Stormare, Michael Clarke Duncan – easily one of Aerosmith’s better slow songs… it just turns bad once they get to the asteroid. And then Bruce pushes the button and it’s pretty good again for the ending.
First Man Movie Review
…Uh-huh. But as to the original question? Cards on the table, I am probably an easier target for this specific sort of movie than I am for just about anything – I mark out for NASA stuff pretty reliably. But on the other hand I didn’t care for Interstellar and that movie was begging me to love it, so… take that for what you will. As to First Man: It’s not perfect, but it hits the big notes the right way and finds an interesting take on a harder-than-you’d-think story to tell. It may well be a quintessential 21st Century Awards Season Biopic (Millennial actors in Boomer Nostalgia cosplay imagining more emotionally-forthcoming versions of their grandparents) but it’s a superlative version thereof and will deserve the love it’s likely the receive come Oscar season.
Beyond these vague and shallow philosophical musings, the most concrete indication were given is simple glory: After Russia beat the U.S. to the successful launch of a satellite and to putting a human in space, the U.S. arched higher in that pissing contest and finally put men on the moon on July 20, 1969.
I think it should be pretty obvious. I myself, Im very political, very patriotic. I love this country. Im active in politics and I felt it when we were making it, you know, I mean, it goes a lot to show who Neil was – what he said when he walked out, that it was for mankind, you know, he added. And its a movie about a man who did extraordinary things.
Though Chazelles film features period-specific footage of protests and citizens criticizing the pouring of money into a program with no immediate proof of reward, you get the feeling you arent supposed to question the motivation to put men on the moon with much scrutiny. This is because Chazelles motivation aligns so well with the U.S.s—First Man also comes seeking glory. It is the kind of big, long, boring movie full of white men that has traditionally played so well at awards shows, quintessential Oscarbait about supposedly big and important events made by a white man who was named Best Director at the 2017 Oscars for another big, boring movie (La La Land). This is what Chazelle, who also directed 2014's thrilling Whiplash, does now.
Neil Armstrong and the America that could have been
In some ways, First Man gestures beyond typical Oscarbait—you can feel Chazelles conflict between making a prestige flick about white dudes and understanding contemporary woke imperatives. First Man spends more time with astronauts wives than other movies of this ilk (say, Apollo 13). Scenes flip between Neil working at NASA or in space and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) at home taking care of her unruly male children. Her job is important, too, the movie suggests. Its not wrong, but Janet is nonetheless cast in Neils shadow (she listens to radio transmissions of her husbands trip to space at home) and she is afforded no domestic equivalent to Neils moon walk. The contrast feels ultimately patronizing—if Chazelle (via a script by Josh Singer based on James R. Hansens Neil Armstrong biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong) really cared about Janet, hed tell the story of the moon landing entirely through her perspective, her husbands achievement as background ambiance to her life story. But thats not what this movie is because thats not the way these things work.
The film offers new perspective on what has become a familiar story of one of humanitys greatest achievements. Meticulously directed by Chazelle, the film gives the most realistic view of space travel weve ever seen re-created in a Hollywood movie. Its not Ron Howards polished re-telling of the disastrous Apollo 13 mission—these spacecrafts are hardly better than the New York City MTA, rattling around through space—rickety, claustrophobic, metal coffins separating these guys from near-certain death. First Man is the first depiction of space travel in a way that shows how truly psychotic these astronauts were to strap their bodies to these untested rockets and shoot themselves into the vacuum of space. The danger is real, as is the human element.
Neil Armstrongs Moonwalk Killed the Box Office in 1969
Foy does the best with what she has, which are a lot of extremely dull scenes. Gosling is fine as Armstrong, but hes playing a character whom Chazelle doesnt even seem to grasp. Even on Earth, where the movie spends the majority of its excruciating 140-minute running time, Goslings Armstrong is as distant as another galaxy. He regards everything with slightly wall-eyed look as though his vision is located in the bridge of his nose, speaks in a convincing Midwestern accent, and never quite lets anyone in on his motivation. We return repeatedly to his grieving over his daughter Karen, who died at the age of 2. Thats about as much insight as we get.
In the film, Chazelle and Singer also attempt to acknowledge people outside of the very white and very male confines of NASA. In one scene, soul crooner Leon Bridges plays Gil Scott-Heron performing, “Whitey On The Moon”. Its a poem that criticizes the government for spending obscene amounts of money on space travel while black communities struggled economically. Foy also gives an incredible performance by shouldering much of the emotional burden of the movie. In one incredible moment, she confronts the NASA administrators who turn off her audio feed to the spacecraft when something appears to be going wrong.
First Man manages to lift itself out of stasis in scenes that take place up in the air. The climactic moon-landing bit is fine—it envelops you in a dark, alien world where not much was done beyond some bouncing. Completely invigorating, though, is the opening scene in which Neil pushes an X15 just outside of the atmosphere—Chazelle grippingly transmits the claustrophobia of being so high up in a tiny metal box thats as rickety as a carnival ride. When Neil finally does approach space, we see the earths reflection on his helmet, the horizon line hitting right at his eyes. Its a lovely shot that leaves you wanting more, but First Man ultimately leaves you hanging, like the atmosphere that Neil bounces off of and has trouble reentering as that opening scene goes on to portray.
Video: Houston actor Gavin Warren shoots for the stars in the new movie “First Man”
The movie, with its apathetic whimper of a final scene reunion between Neil and Janet, is both grandiose and underwhelming. I left First Man less certain than ever about the actual practical worth of the U.S.s moon landing, which in part at the time served as a distraction from civil rights struggles that still have yet to be reconciled. Clearly we had to start somewhere in our exploration of space, but were barely closer to colonizing another planet, and time is running out. If what we are to glean is that this is another example of the journey being more important than the destination, well, thats a rather confusing lesson from a story about a trip to the moon. With the clarity of humanitys impending extinction sharpening daily like resolution of televisions with each technological advancement, it becomes harder to celebrate the achievements of our species—if we cannot save ourselves from doom, those achievements are ultimately shortcomings and progress is just an abstraction. If were all gone in 20 years, the moon landing will be just a nice try. I guess you could say that about all human activity, for that matter (and after all, movies have to be about something), but the utter scale and self-seriousness with which Chazelle handles this material feels particularly oppressive. Youre supposed to interpret all this material as important because he said so in a movie thats important because Hollywood and (often overexcited, festival-going) film critics are saying so. Yawn.
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