Saturday, October 13, 2018

First Man (2018) Shoots for the Moon But Misses

First Man movie review
Universal Pictures
Most are probably familiar with Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission: the space race between the U.S. and Soviet Union, the "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" quote, the iconic photo of Neil's footprints on the moon. Here for First Man, director Damien Chazelle explores a deeper, not widely known story, behind one of humankind’s biggest achievements.

Following the death of their toddler Karen, Neil (Ryan Gosling) and his family gradually set a course for him through trial and error to chart the famous Apollo 11 mission. While working his way up as a pilot and surviving the Gemini missions to landing on the moon, Armstrong’s eyes are so strongly set on the stars to deal with his grief, his relationship with wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their two sons starts falling apart at the seams.

One can’t have a biopic about Neil Armstrong without the Apollo 11, and vice versa. To tackle such an elusive figure with monumental events, it’s a real balancing act for any director to want to tell both stories. There's no question that Chazelle wanted to explore Armstrong's side of the events. However in focusing the film almost entirely from his perspective, the overall journey to the moon leaves a lot to be desired. 

The cinematography and production design truly makes the film soar more than the script or director's storytelling choices. Dwelling on Neil's two states of mind between despair and determination, Chazelle offers glimpses into the domestic side of his life versus the incredible risks he took for his career. On the  few occasions he spent with his family, Neil’s life seems serene. By peering into his well-guarded privacy from the outside in, the Armstrong's look like the model Americana family: happy, uninhabited by tragedy and part of the rose-colored Great American landscape we often think of. There's a grounded quality as we see Janet, Neil and the boys interact with each other with the only unusually-usual aspect of their lives being that Neil is an astronaut. Even if he's at home, Neil's mind is somewhere else. Through the picturesque veil Chazelle creates, what we realize throughout the film and especially at the end, is how Karen's death is Neil's biggest motivating factor; a life-changing event for the world all stems back to the life of a little girl gone too soon.

Contrasting the homeliness of Earth is the training and space flights Neil endures as an escape from his bereavement. When he, or any of the astronauts, are locked inside their tin-can rockets, struggling with the controls, breaking through Earth’s atmosphere or trying to come back home safely, we as the audience feel like we’re right alongside them. Chazelle's use of dizzying shaky cam, deafening sound design, and unbelievable practical effects are almost as tangible (one can imagine) as training to be a real astronaut. Neil and Janet’s loss influences every inch of the film, both in the way that their lives appear like something out of TimeLife editorial to the dangerous chaos Armstrong takes on again and again in order to gain some peace - it's almost the little moments of their lives behind the scenes that makes up the entire event itself. 

Despite the quiet and visceral ways Neil's life is depicted, the film takes on Armstrong's mourning and plays it on every stoic note possible. The events leading up to the moon landing and the landmark occasion itself feels glossed over. Earlier in his career, Armstrong sits among a class of fellow engineers, pilots, and military men who are about to embark on their intense physical training and education. Before the long road to Apollo 11 begins, Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton warns, "We’ve chosen a job so difficult, requiring so many technological developments, we are going to have to start from scratch. Only after we master these tasks, do we consider trying to land on the moon." Just experiencing second-hand what they set out to achieve sounds like one of the most daunting goals mankind could ever conceive, let alone an unbelievable responsibility for one man to become remembered and revered by. But the movie fails on the promise to unravel not just the man behind Armstrong's legend by the collective people at NASA who made the mission possible. 

At a glance, the price NASA and its people had to pay is almost as important as Armstrong’s personal conflicts - every failed attempt at space exploration presented unimaginable obstacles that had to be solved before the next venture began; the company had to stay one step ahead of the Soviet Union; eventually NASA had to contend with a growing public who thought going into space was fruitless and a waste of money. Despite the filmmakers imploring that their work explores humankind’s achievements, the story doesn’t take advantage of anything else going on. It sprinkles history in context here and there, and it's a misstep for such a monumental biopic when you consider other space films that have covered a wider scope of NASA behind-the-scenes: Apollo 13 showing Houston's control room scrambling to save three astronauts from faulty wiring mid space-flight around the moon; The Astronaut's Wives television series celebrating the complex wives of beloved astronauts, or even The Martian adaptation which thread NASA and other countries pulling together to try to bring a deserted astronaut on Mars back home to Earth. In contrast of what Armstrong beckons “We must learn to fail down here so we don’t fail up there” after another failed test that almost kills him, the script doesn't integrate the problems Armstrong or any other team had to solve in order for Apollo 11 to succeed or offer any variation of drama outside of Armstrong's self-imposed isolation.

For the most part, Chazelle focuses on the deaths of astronauts piling up around Armstrong once he starts working with NASA to the point that it becomes cyclical: a title card suggests what mission NASA is working on, the astronauts start their mission which turns out to be fatal, and Neil discovers what happens to his comrades, rinse and repeat. It’s meant to suggest the real stakes these men took to make history, but the drama or reality of it all stays the same. When Armstrong with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins Jr. actually achieve what so many only dream of, their accomplishment feels short-lived despite the emotional release Armstrong lets himself have. The film never quite starts nor returns to the exciting promise of what mankind was working towards in order for Neil to reach their goal.

Technically, what Chazelle does with the film is beautiful. However, as a character study more than anything else, the characters feel distant and unrelated to Neil in any deep capacity. His relationship with Janet isn't that well-explored for a major portion of the film, leaving the leads without a lot to do with each other or individually.

To his credit, Gosling is given the task of repressing enough of his feelings so that the film's most important catharsis with Karen and the moon landing pays off; he can't play the ending during the beginning and middle, and that's a difficult thing to master. But this isn't his most charismatic or gripping role. Foy, on the other hand, is limited as the nervous wife who can't do anything to ease her husband's pain while virtually raising their kids on her own. Not to say that a wife or a mother is an unimportant role, but her presence feels like a waste of a potential meatier role considering she also loss Karen, not just Neil. Even in expanding focus on other characters outside of the Armstrong's to other astronauts or engineers in the control room, the ensemble honestly becomes a flurry of cameos; there's no tangible personal connections between Neil and the people around him to the point where you're holding onto straws for Neil to finally break through his emotional barriers. When that touching moment arrives, it's almost too-little-too-late and too fleeting to leave a real impressionable mark.

As a director, Chazelle's only on his third feature film, and First Man is far from a failure for him compared to other directors who've fallen from their pedestals much earlier or for more controversial reasons. From a design perspective, the film is a marvel. The training sequences and the moon-landing are visually and atmospherically stunning; intense enough to affirm anyone's fear of going into space or question someone's aspirations of becoming an astronaut (I'm the latter). Unlike the high-octane Whiplash or eccentric La La Land, his latest film wants to be a little bit of everything - a documentary, a VR experience, a character study - but barely just scratches the surface to make it more interesting than just another history lesson.

Rating: ★
Have you seen First Man? What did you think?

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