First Man - 2018
Director(s): Damien Chazelle
Writer(s): Josh Singer (screenplay) / James R. Hansen (book)
Cinematography by: Linus Sandgren
Editor(s): Tom Cross
Cast: Claire Foy, Ryan Gosling, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Olivia Hamilton and Ethan Embry
We currently live in a pop-culture that is entrenched in romanticizing the past, mostly the 80s, but one of the aspects of our past that I’ve always wished I lived or experience was that sense of community around the unknown potential of our country, but more importantly, the potential of the human race. When JFK told our country in the 60s that our goal was the stars and the moon, he sent a shock wave across the country, a mixture of “should we “and, mainly, “can we?” Once Neil Armstrong placed his foot on the surface of the Moon, the message was clear, there is nothing we can’t do if we set our mind to it. What is often overlooked, due to the grand scale of the accomplishment, is the sacrifices and the lives it took to get that first man on the moon. This movie tries to shed some light on what it took.
The story centers around the space race between the Russians and the Americans, as both countries were dead set on being the first to place a man on the surface of the moon. The movie starts in 1961 and walks us all the way to 1969, showing us all the bumps and bruises along the way. The script is a bit at odds with the spectacle of the accomplishment and the human element behind it. There are long sequences of training, tests and failed missions that show us the amount of grueling work it took for every man and woman. It sets you inside the cockpit and makes you feel and see what they felt and saw to the point that you’re just as tired and dizzy as the astronauts.
When it comes to Neil (Gosling) and his family, the script failed to bring the emotional weight the story deserved. Not that there weren’t emotional stakes, as the multiple deaths they witness takes a toll on them, it just felt like the thread was lost somewhere along the way. Nothing against Gosling and Foy as both did a tremendous job, as did the rest of the cast, they are just lost in the flow of the movie. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, since the spectacle is so grandiose and breathtaking, I just didn’t connect with him and his motivations as it was single-minded and emotionless at times. He didn’t embody that feeling or that shock wave the United States felt with the moon being the goal of his mission. It could be that Armstrong was this way and they were forced to write him as this emotionless, driven man, it just takes away a bit from the drama.
Quick note: the movie is 2hrs and 22mins long and it spans across 8-years, but they didn’t convey time very well. If the movie didn’t explicitly tell you that they are in a different year, you couldn’t tell the difference.
Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) is quickly gathering a versatile and unique filmography when it comes to the visuals. Sure, one can argue that all his movies center around goal-driven individuals who stop at nothing to accomplish them, but the way he films them is completely different, making them seem like another director touched the camera. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (La La Land) shot this movie beautifully and with a purpose. They utilized tight close-ups to tight medium shots for most of the movie. It felt claustrophobic and invasive, as if the entire world was placing a magnifying glass over every single move they made. They also shot this on film, making it look of the times with its grainy, unpolished quality. Most of the spaceflights and test runs are viewed from inside the cockpit, an experience that is jarring and unnerving but powerful. But where this movie got me was when they finally broke into space and they push back to a glorious wide shot of the rocket blasting off and as soon as it hits space the film quality changes to the IMAX cameras creating a distinct look and feel for earth and space. You take a deep breath and take in the view welcoming that awe-inspiring wide shot, taking a break from the limiting views of the close-ups. The score during this moment is amazing making the hairs in the back of your neck stand-up. The moon sequence is beautiful as well, as they utilize the reflection of his helmet to present the vastness and the loneliness of standing on the moon.
Quick note: this movie will sweep all the technical awards, especially the sound department, and the special effects are a stand-out and elevated this movie.
First Man is a singular look at what it took to accomplish one if not the greatest feats in humankind. Chazelle and Sandgren are a match made in space, as they continue to showcase a flare and an eye for visually impactful sequences that get seared into your brain, making a home in your psyche. While it does lack a bit of that emotional gut punch, it doesn’t shy away from the tragedy and the sacrifices the astronauts and the sacrifices their families made by standing by their side. It was worth it just for that moment they finally made it to space. Chazelle and Sandgren are why I love movies.
First Man is currently playing in theaters. It’s a movie made for the biggest screen you can find.
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