Do we really need another film about NASA’s extraordinary first journey to the moon? It turns out we do. For decades Hollywood has been turning out fictional and non-fictional space films.
“Apollo 13” stands out as the modern standard, despite being a film about not accomplishing that mission. However, the inventive Oscar-winning director behind modern, trendy and commercial hits “Whiplash” and “La La Land” delivers something unexpected with “First Man.” 33-year-old Damian Chazelle’s glimpse into the life and mind of Neil Armstrong is an intimate look at loss and suffering. While that might not be what audiences thought they were buying a ticket for, as the old saying goes, sometimes you get more than what you bargained for.
Tragedy in the astronaut’s life propels his focus toward man’s first mission to the moon. If you know anything about Armstrong’s history, you will understand the reference, if not, even more, to discover in “First Man.” Everything old is new again. A new generation will get to discover history on the big screen in “First Man,” with their anointed hipster king Ryan Gosling, commanding the journey.
Instead of telling this story on a big scale, like survival film “The Martian” or suspense thriller “Gravity,” Chazelle and his cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) keep the focus on the eyes, often in extreme close up so we can feel Gosling emoting Armstrong’s pain. When the film debuted to it’s biggest audience at The Toronto International Film Festival, some had issued with the film’s intimacy. While Universal is selling the film on Space, Gosling and Chazelle’s acclaim. Managed expectations will be the order of the day.
Ok, so why is this one different?
“I married Neil because I wanted a normal life,” Janet Armstrong (Foy) admits in all irony. Neil’s focus in 1962 was split between his two-year-old daughter Karen’s brain tumor and NASA’s race against the Soviets to get to the moon. “He’s a good engineer, but he’s distracted,” superiors note when considering Neil (Gosling) for the mission all the pilots at NASA are gunning for. Following Karen’s death, the Armstrong family moves to Houston where Neil consumes himself with work, becoming someone Janet and his sons hardly recognize. After repeatedly proving how to react during the most brutal of simulations, including one that nearly kills the former war pilot, Neil is chosen to lead the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and his dedication is never questioned again.
As he has done with his two previous Oscar-winning films, Chazelle seeks to challenge his audience. He’s never given us what we expected. Even the technical elements of the film are unusual; grainy imagery from a variety of film types (16mm, 35mm, IMAX), and sound design that’s guaranteed to win awards. He saves the IMAX scenes until Armstrong arrives on the moon, and all of a sudden with one step, what you are watching completely changes.
The movie shakes and jerks your eyes balls as if you were strapped alongside Neil in the violent blast off. What happens on the moon will surprise you, because for Neil it was much more than making history, planting a flag or winning the space race. There are moments during an incredibly powerful launch sequence that you swear you can hear individual bolts creaking.
Another training sequence where the ambitious astronauts are putting their bodies through violent endurance tests, Chazelle put the audience in a spinning contraption that makes the occupant sick and gives the viewer a hands-on experience. Chazelle has figured out exactly what point of view this story hasn’t been told from and takes us there with the explosive creative genius we’ve come to expect from his talent.
Basically, the ultimate goal of showing your movie at fall film festivals like Toronto, Venice, and Telluride is to jumpstart the awards frenzy. Chazelle who is basically a spoiled brat when it comes to critics and awards bait looks likely to do the Oscar dance yet again. “First Man” will likely be nominated for picture, director, actor, maybe even television star turned film actress Claire Foy in the supporting category, despite minimal screen time.
Where Chazelle’s films really excel in awards races are those technical categories, or “below the line” races. Sound and sound editing are sure bets for nominations and wins. The mixture of electronic sounds and contemporary original movie music also stands out as something you haven’t heard before.
Cinematography will depend on each voter’s taste if they like the gimmick the team goes for. Like I mentioned earlier, some audiences and critics are already dividing a line in the sand on this one. So what do you think?