Riding Shotgun to History – First Man

If there’s one word to describe Damien Chazelle’s latest work, it would be, “gripping.” That really is the best word I can come up with for First Man, his chronicle of the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong and the events leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing. From the very beginning it is Chazelle’s intent to plop you right down as close as possible to all the proceedings of the Space Race, but also to create an almost claustrophobic atmosphere on down-to-earth (literally) emotional issues, so that you can’t leave.

From the very first two scenes, Chazelle works his magic. First we see Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) on a test flight where he bounces off the atmosphere before landing in the Mojave Desert back in 1961. Views are limited, lighting sparse, but the tension is instant and lasting, cramped into the tiny space of the cockpit as we watch Armstrong calmly adjust to the complications of flight as if we were his co-pilot. Every odd sound is crystal clear, the camera shaking just the right amount to make us feel like we’re there. Honestly, if you have motion issues, I recommend a lower format. I saw this in IMAX, as it was intended and filmed, and the experience is incredibly immersive, but it may be distressing for some.

Right after that flight, as soon as we in the audience can collectively breathe because Neil’s out of the aircraft, Chazelle hits us with a different type of intimate tension in the form of a tragic sequence that informs the rest of the film while simultaneously ripping our collective hearts right out of our chest. It’s the kind of intensity Chazelle put on display in the marvelous Whiplash a few years ago, and it’s clearly a leitmotif at this point. At the same time, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This is a tremendous film, and clearly another effort to make a play for the Oscars, as evidenced by the fact that Steven Spielberg is listed as an Executive Producer and the film carries both the Universal and Dreamworks banners. As such, I’ll treat this just as I did with A Star is Born last week, taking a deep dive into the potential categories this film might vie for, and see if it can make a run, or if it’s even worthy of making one.

Best Actor – While La La Land was a duel effort for both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, with the latter taking home the gold, this is very much a showcase for Gosling, and he does a fantastic job. He portrays Armstrong as stoic and almost fully aloof. He only truly shows emotion beyond a smile and a high five about three times in the entire film. He’s a man on a mission, but not a man above the mission, which is shown as a contrast to people like Buzz Aldrin, played as a crass, attention-seeking jerk by Corey Stoll (I’m guessing the real Aldrin might object to his characterization). He’s all about getting the job done, his drive mostly spurred by a sense of duty and efficiency, but also to honor his loved ones, and he’s ever at the ready to get his hands dirty to do it. A lot of the film is shown either through his eyes or adjacent to them, and because of that we get some very close insight into Armstrong’s mental state, as sometimes we’re literally in his head space.

Is his performance nomination-worthy? As of right now, I’d say yes. While Gosling’s performance is reserved, that doesn’t mean he’s not giving it his all. He holds back because that’s who Armstrong was as a person. He never sought the spotlight. He simply did his job. He’s the personification of, oddly enough, an old quote from Star Trek: First Contact. “Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.” Granted, the character in question for that quote, Zefram Cochrane, dismissed it rhetorical nonsense before he got the “gotcha” moment that it’s his own quip in the future, but it really is apt here. Gosling as Armstrong isn’t going for glory. He simply tries to see a different perspective, as noted during his interview to join the Gemini program that would give way to Apollo.

That reluctance carries through to his personal life, where he tries to raise a family and do right by everyone, even though he’s consumed by the work. As an engineer, he trusts the math. As a man, he sees first-hand the danger involved, as several of his comrades become casualties to the cause. Because of this, he becomes distant from his wife and children, fearing that too much emotion might lead to more devastation if something goes wrong and he’s the next one not to come home.

As I’ve gone through the year, I’ve kept notes on the various performances and other elements in the really good movies. There have been some very strong performances so far, and in my head, if I was a voter, Gosling would get a nomination from me. It’s early still, so he – or the other four I have in mind right now – might get displaced. But this is definitely worthy of attention.

Best Supporting Actress – Claire Foy (who’s won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for The Crown) carries the emotional load of the film as Armstrong’s wife Janet. It’s a largely thankless role, one that’s been played in just about every movie ever made about space flight. Kathleen Quinlan essentially played the same role as Jim Lovell’s wife in Apollo 13 over 20 years ago.

That said, her performance is well done. I was little off put by the way Chazelle decided to give her extreme close-ups whenever she was smoking (the film curiously had a different disclaimer during the credits, noting that it doesn’t endorse smoking and that it’s unhealthy, but not explicitly stating that they didn’t take tobacco money to show people smoking), but apart from that, she makes the best of her material, literally and figuratively juggling her obligations to her kids and husband, and bearing the brunt of the consequences whenever something goes wrong. Eventually it becomes too much and she lashes out at Neil, demanding that he give their sons a serious talk about what to do if he doesn’t come back from the Apollo 11 mission. She apologizes for him when he’s antisocial, but is also hopelessly devoted to him. I’m not sure I buy any particular chemistry between the pair, but when you’re following Emma Stone, what can you really do?

Best Supporting Actor – Fresh off some less than stellar efforts this year, like Winchester and Chappaquiddick, Jason Clarke assumes the role of fellow astronaut Ed White, the first American to walk in space. His performance is fine, but nothing truly special. That said, he serves a good purpose to help Claire Foy’s Jan in keeping Armstrong figuratively grounded throughout the film. His presence also helps to make this living history lesson feel more real. As much of a space fan as I am, I honestly didn’t know how much truly went into this process. A lot of other similar films, like Hidden Figures and Apollo 13, focus on a singular task or mission, whereas this film follows the course of several missions over a decade, and it’s people like Clarke as Ed White who allow us to get inside the heads of all involved. Before this film, you could’ve told me that Armstrong and Aldrin were best buddies who went to school together, and I wouldn’t doubt it. But here, we have people like Ed White and Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) to flesh out Armstrong’s personal life and show the long, intricate, and arduous process by which we as a society got to the Moon in just over eight years since President Kennedy made his challenge to the country.

Sound Effects/Editing – Man it’s going to be tough to judge the sound categories next year. We have films like You Were Never Really Here and A Quiet Place which rely entirely on the sound design to make those movies work. And now we have First Man, which plays with sound almost to the point of excess to further convey the seriousness of every moment. Every flight and launch carries with it an array of sound effects as pressure builds, not just on the flight crew, but on the ship itself. Chazelle takes care to make sure we can only see what the astronauts can see from the cockpit, which isn’t much, so we’re dependent on the sounds to reinforce the tension. And then, on the flipside, we get a lot of moments of absolute, beautiful silence in space, echoing (forgive the pun) what Stanley Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, as there is no air in space for sound to travel.

This comes to a head with one particular sequence during the Gemini 8 mission, which Armstrong commanded, and was the first to have the ship dock with another vehicle while in orbit. To the film’s detriment, Chazelle uses a sound-alike to the “Blue Danube” waltz as the two objects are docking, a direct nod to 2001 and its similar sequences. But he makes up for it when the vehicle starts spinning out of control. We get sounds from the cockpit as well as from the trapped areas of the module spinning in space, going so fast as to seem like theremin music. It’s a masterful touch.

And of course, we get a deluge of balanced sounds when it comes to radio contact, which is a heavy load on the live mixing team. This may be one of the rare instances where the sound categories get split. I can easily see a film like A Quiet Place winning for Sound Editing while this one wins for Sound Mixing.

Visual Effects – This should go without saying, but if you’re gonna go to the Moon, you better make me believe it. Suffice to say, I did. This is the beauty of IMAX, because you truly feel like you’re on the lunar surface at times. Further in the film’s favor, the effects team uses a lot of practical effects in lieu of CGI. Again, a lot of the tension is implied, as we see shaky cameras in a closed environment, opening to reveal the absolute majesty of the atmosphere and the surface itself.

Cinematography – Of all the tech categories, this is the one I think has the best chance of being a right fit. As mentioned, a LOT of the action takes place in a very confined space, and our visual input is carefully directed so that in most cases we can only see what the astronauts see, or what mounted cameras on the various ships and modules can see. This adds a lot of dramatic tension and really serves to place us right in the center of the action. When Apollo 11 launches, there’s a great moment when the Saturn V rocket begins its separation procedures once it escapes the atmosphere. All we get to see is Armstrong on his back, looking slightly to his left out the window, as flames spurt up alongside it, signaling the separation and the thrust to push them out of orbit. In the pitch black of space, it’s a breathtaking (albeit brief) splash of light and color.

Production Design – Part of Chazelle’s vision for the film was to show the gritty, nuts-and-bolts work that made our trip to the Moon possible. As such, the sets and artistic designs reflect that. There is no shiny, white futuristic surface work, no high tech panels, none of that stuff you’d typically see in, well, movies. Instead, you see rusted metal, bathrooms with half-painted walls and floors that look like they’ve never been cleaned, switches and buttons with words that are almost illegible, even in IMAX. These were the true conditions the NASA team were under at the time. It was all very spartan, and very dangerous, because trial and error were a big part of the process. In two particularly great scenes, Armstrong and others test out a simulator of the rotational forces they might encounter in space, with the goal of stabilizing before they pass out/throw up, while in another Armstrong tests out a prototype for the LEM lander, coming home with a face splattered with blood and oil. Both of these contraptions are makeshift in design, and flimsy in their mechanical reliability, but they’re the perfect illustrations of the lengths these people went to in order to get this done. These weren’t preppy nerds beating the Soviets, but men willing to put in all the elbow grease needed, and the sets are commendably designed to complement that aesthetic.

Adapted Screenplay – The film is based on James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, so I’m going to assume there’s a high degree of verisimilitude. As far as the quality of the dialogue? Meh. It’s alright, but nothing mind-blowing. There are a few predictable monologues that I’m sure will end up on sizzle reels to be played as various nominees are announced at various ceremonies, but I didn’t see anything that says, “Damn, now that is good writing!” It’s serviceable, and gets the job done, not unlike Armstrong himself.

Best Director – Chazelle won this category the last time out, and he’s been nominated twice as a writer. He can make a strong case for himself this time as well, because there’s a lot to this undertaking. Much of what I’ve already mentioned as a positive can be attributed to him just as much as to the individuals and teams responsible, and for that he is to be congratulated and given serious consideration.

Still, there were a couple of odd choices. In a couple of sequences, he lays it on a bit thick regarding the socio-political atmosphere of the time. As the Vietnam War escalated, people were apparently protesting NASA just as much as the military, which seems odd, and really, just showing it does nothing to advance the story or give it greater context. There’s one moment in particular where a beat poet, played by R&B singer Leon Bridges (who I absolutely love, go buy his records), raps a poem called “Whitey’s on the Moon,” which, why? Honestly all I could do is imagine the inevitable CinemaSins outtake where Jeremy edits the Police single, “Walking on the Moon” into the scene.

Best Picture – I can’t say for certain that I’d nominate this film if I could, but I also can’t say that I wouldn’t. This is a tremendous effort with a few noticeable flaws, but it’s also grand and well worth the price of admission, even for large formats. If a movie like Gravity can get a Best Picture nomination, surely this can as well, and we’ve never had a space movie with the top prize, so why not here? Is it my favorite movie of the year? No. That said, I would not be pissed if it got that kind of recognition, because it is a truly unique take on the space program in general, letting the audience get as close to experiencing history as possible from the comfort of a movie seat. Regardless of whether it’d get my vote, I think I can safely say that this is the first true contender for Best Picture to crop up so far this fall.

One last note before I end this. To the people at Fox News who claimed this movie was insufficiently patriotic because there was no scene of Armstrong physically planting the American flag on the lunar surface, well, go fuck yourselves. This movie oozes patriotism from just about every frame. Every ship has flags on it, every helmet, every space suit. The indignation about losing the Space Race flares up every few moments. People like Kennedy and other politicians are venerated for the challenge of getting to the Moon. And finally, the goddam flag is on the Moon! Just because we don’t physically see Gosling plant it doesn’t mean it’s not there. We literally see it as he leaves the surface, you dingbats!

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Should I continue rating potential nominations or hold off because they’re too wordy? Is that a rocket in your pocket or are you just happy to see me? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “Riding Shotgun to History – First Man

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