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First Man

First Whiplash came out, and it was awesome. With this story about a young musician pushing himself beyond all limits in the chase for perfection, writer/director Damien Chazelle coaxed career-best performances out of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, helping the latter to earn a Best Supporting Oscar. But over time and under closer scrutiny, the movie started to fall apart — at least for me and the fellow musicians I’ve been in contact with. While Whiplash showed the pain, suffering, and hard work that comes with being a professional musician, it showed none of the joy. The movie focused so much on the work that the payoff was all but completely neglected, and that’s a significant oversight. To say nothing of how Simmons’ antics in that movie would’ve gotten him blackballed ages before it happened in the plot.

This is the baggage I took with me to La La Land, which is probably a huge part of why I loved that movie so much. Here was a movie overflowing with love for the arts, bursting at the seams with color and joy. But it also brought in some new problems — specifically with how it’s the white male lead who gets everything handed to him on a silver platter while it’s the female lead who works her ass off and gets nothing for it. To say nothing about the controversy regarding a white musician coming in to revolutionize jazz.

Also, looking at the casts and stories of the two films, there’s simply no denying that Chazelle makes films that are overwhelmingly WHITE. He’s a white man making white stories about white people. In a time when audiences are demanding newer voices and more diverse stories, that’s definitely a problem.

The latest case in point is First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong, here portrayed by Ryan Gosling. Call me a cynic, but I could swear this looks like an obvious attempt at cribbing from Hidden Figures and riding some Oscar coattails. Except, of course, a huge part of that movie’s appeal was its expert focus on women of color and its wonderful portrayal of a story we didn’t already know. Trying to make another Space Race movie about the white guys involved — and under this director! — seemed like a bad idea.

(Side note: It’s important to clarify that the script was written by Josh Singer — Chazelle is only the director this time.)

On the other hand, we still very badly need more movies that glamorize science and space exploration. If the movie accomplishes that much, then I won’t complain. Additionally, Chazelle promised a movie that would take us into the capsule and give us an authentic experience of going to the moon for the first time. Chazelle has always proven to be more than technically competent, if nothing else, so this at least promised to be something worthwhile.

The movie opens with us in the cockpit as Neil Armstrong goes on a test flight, literally bounces off the atmosphere, then guides his craft back to the ground, safe and alive to tell the tale. We then proceed to Armstrong’s home life, as he and his family grapple with his daughter’s brain tumor. A short time later, we’re watching the poor girl’s funeral. And this is all within the first twelve minutes.

First of all, it’s marvelous how the filmmakers got us to care so much about a character’s death after only ten minutes of screentime. Granted, a young girl dying of cancer is inherently sympathetic, but major kudos are still due to all the actors and filmmakers who made this death hit so hard when they had so little to work with. Secondly, while this death is naturally a crucial recurring point in Neil Armstrong’s development as a character, death itself is a recurring trend in the film.

Even though we know perfectly well how the story ends, the stakes and dramatic tension stay high because the filmmakers focus on the very real cost of the Space Race. What these astronauts are doing is extremely dangerous, and even a single technical glitch means two or three more grieving families. To say nothing of the taxpayer cost — the movie consistently reminds us that NASA’s unlimited budget could have gone toward health care, infrastructure, or literally anything else that would make our nation more livable. Especially when we’ve already got the Vietnam War as another questionable drain on our nation’s money and manpower for the indefinite future. As for the race aspect, Chazelle is good enough to throw in a protest scene, in which a protester remarks (I’m paraphrasing, it’s a long poem) that we can’t get rid of crippling health care debt or homelessness or voter suppression, but at least we can get “Whitey on the moon.” (That part’s not paraphrased, it’s a direct quotation.)

Mercifully, (and wisely, in this political climate) Chazelle never portrays any of the skeptics or naysayers as villains. Indeed, the characters openly admit that what they’re doing is dangerous, expensive, and potentially lethal. And if it wasn’t so important, they wouldn’t be doing it. Basically, it all comes back to broken characters suffering for their chosen profession, asking how far is too far and what cost is too high in the pursuit of greatness. In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s quickly become Chazelle’s calling card as an auteur.

Getting back to the human cost, the filmmakers were smart enough to put a heavy emphasis on Armstrong’s wife (Janet, played by a fiery Claire Foy), who’s stuck at home dealing with a couple of troublemaking boys while their father is out flying rockets. And he may not ever come back home. All of the astronauts are neighbors, and we get to see the impressive support system they’ve built for each other. The wives are an impressive team in their own right, and watching the bonds grow between them is a huge factor in why it hurts so badly to see an astronaut die.

And of course the men themselves have to confront their own mortality. In Neil’s case, he’s so laser-focused on completing the mission and so used to suppressing his anxieties that he probably wouldn’t admit to anyone the possibility of dying if Jan didn’t force him. Say what you will about Gosling and his… *ahem* limited range of facial expression, but he knows how to show the audience what’s going on inside a character’s head. Playing a character who’s ice-cold on the outside and freaking out on the inside is an ideal use for Gosling’s skill set, and it pays off here.

The supporting cast is just as strong. We’ve got Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Shea Wigham, Ciaran Hinds… from top to bottom, the cast is flooded with sturdy and reliable performers, every one perfectly cast. I’m a little disappointed that J.K. Simmons didn’t make the cut, but there’s not a bad performance in here. And I’m including the female cast (Claire Foy, Kris Swanberg, Olivia Hamilton, etc.) in that assessment.

There’s really only one major problem I have with this movie, but stars alive is it a big one: I have never seen worse visuals ruin an otherwise better movie since Short Term 12.

It is not an exaggeration to say that EVERY SINGLE SHOT in this movie is handheld. Not only that, but it’s aggressively handheld. This is the kind of overly shaky camerawork that shoots right past “cinema verite”, landing squarely in “obnoxious and invasive”. What makes it even worse, at least two-thirds of the shots in this movie are in close-up or extreme close-up. Thus the camera movements are magnified and it looks like the camera was hooked up to a goddamn ceiling fan.

To be clear, I get how this approach makes sense in the context of the flight scenes. The close-up camerawork helps us feel how tight and claustrophobic it must have been inside those flight capsules. And of course the shaky handheld camerawork was essential in portraying the overpowering noise and motion of riding a missile into space. It goes back to the film’s portrayal of astronauts as brave individuals embarking on this dangerous (possibly suicidal) mission.

But then the Apollo 11 mission happens. After so many harrowing flight sequences in which we barely ever leave the cockpit, the climax had far too many external shots of the shuttle and lander going through their motions. I appreciate that it’s cinematic and impressive and all that, but I was much more interested in the perspective of the astronauts stuck in that tiny little capsule, praying that the instruments are working as expected because there’s no other way to tell what’s going on. The whole movie did so much to build that up, and the climax didn’t deliver nearly so well. Though at least Justin Hurwitz’ score is suitably elegant throughout.

Getting back to my earlier point, just because shaky handheld close-up shots work so well in the flight sequences, that doesn’t mean the approach works just as well for something as mundane as two characters talking. I wouldn’t even have minded all the close-up shots if someone had put the camera on a fucking tripod.

There is absolutely room enough for both First Man and Hidden Figures. They’re both perfectly fine movies that explore the same event from two different perspectives: One behind the scenes and one on the front lines. (See also: Dunkirk and Darkest Hour) In the specific case of First Man, I found it to be a beautifully acted tribute to the brave first astronauts who first ventured to the moon, and to the families they left at home.

Regarding Damien Chazelle himself, he shows a very clear pattern of making pictures about characters who sacrifice everything and suffer terribly so they can make history and achieve greatness. From there, it’s only a short leap to assume that Chazelle sees himself as a suffering artist pushing all boundaries in the pursuit of greatness, and making movies about the same. Little wonder that he comes off as arrogant, which is an especially bad look for a white filmmaker who works with dominantly white casts. I’ll be interested to see how he fares this awards season.

In the meantime, the nauseating camerawork precludes IMAX as an option, but the flight sequences are simply too amazing to be seen on home video. This has to be a big-screen watch.

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