Wednesday, October 24, 2018

First Man Review

It's time to review another Damien Chazelle film! Chazelle is a director whose career I am quite invested in. Not only did he start his career off with two phenomenal films in "Whiplash" and "La La Land," the latter of which is developing into an all-time favorite for me, but I was lucky enough to interview him over the phone two years ago. I stress the word "lucky" in that previous sentence because all I did was convince the Deseret News to hire me for an internship in 2016 and they gave me all sorts of fancy people to interview during those four months. The people who were marketing "La La Land" that year reached out to us and since I am a movie guy, I gladly took that assignment on. I almost scored an interview with Emma Stone in that process, but Chazelle was the one who ended up being available for us, which I was super grateful for. It was one of my favorite interviews. They showed me the movie nearly two months before it was released to the general public and then I got to talk to Chazelle all about his experience with the movie and what it meant to him personally. So of course I was going to follow his career closely. That means I've known for some time that his next project was a Neil Armstrong biopic and thus I was excited to see what he would do with that.

Perhaps that makes me a bit biased going into this movie, but so be it. I was biased with "La La Land," too, since I talked to the guy about the movie. That'll do wonders in shaping your opinion of a film. I don't know how interested the rest of the world was in this. I mean, critics were on a similar page as me as Chazelle is a guy who had both of his first two films get nominated for best picture. "First Man" was released to festival audiences starting with Venice on August 29, then moving on over the next month or so to places like Telluride and TIFF. It got strong scored from said festival audience. But I can see the general population looking at the trailers for this and simply seeing a movie about Neil Armstrong and the first trip to the moon and thus not caring too much about the movie comparatively. A lot of people hated "La La Land" (shame on all of them) and a lot of people probably have never heard about "Whiplash" as the latter's box office totals weren't very strong. So I can understand that many people don't quite have the same emotional investment in Chazelle as me or as critics who closely follow the Oscar films. This has actually resulted in a lot of surprisingly negative reaction towards this film that I did not expect, so we'll get to that.

First and foremost, one specific internet comment that stood out to me was that someone complained about the film because it was "more of a biography of Neil Armstrong." I facepalmed so hard at that. Because, yeah, that's EXACTLY what this movie is. Taking a step back, though, that made me realize that not everyone knew what to expect going in, which would most certainly impact your movie-going experience. I'm not sure what people expected from this film, but it's not a movie like "Interstellar" or "The Martian," two movies focused specifically on space travel. It's also not a movie that was trying to be like "Apollo 13" by focusing specifically on the mission itself. This is a movie whose primary focus is telling the story of Neil Armstrong. It was not meant to be an epic space adventure. It was not meant to be a political thriller. It was meant to showcase the life of Neil Armstrong, the human being behind one of the most monumental achievements in the history of mankind. And in this right, I think it's fascinating. We know all about Apollo 11. But we don't know as much about Neil Armstrong himself and what he went through in his personal life. At least I didn't. I suppose I can't speak for the rest of the world. But I was excited to learn about him.

Given that I went in expecting a personal look at the life of Neil Armstrong instead of some sort of epic space adventure or a political thriller, it shouldn't surprise you that I was most fascinated by the family dynamic and the drama that came with it. We all look at Neil Armstrong as one of the most iconic figures in history, but I didn't realize that he was such a quiet, closed up individual. I think it's easy for one to assume a more outgoing, energetic personality from someone who accomplished something so great, but that's not the case. In a way I think that element of the movie can be rather inspiring for those of us who aren't necessarily the most outgoing people ever. I don't consider myself quiet or shy, per se, but I also wouldn't label myself as an extrovert. It's easy to be self-degrading in that sense in thinking that I can't accomplish as much because I don't have the right personality type. Yet Neil Armstrong is a character who accomplished one of the great feats this world has ever known in being the first man to ever step foot on the moon. But he wasn't this outspoken, extroverted character. As such, he was able to show that you can do whatever you set your mind to, even if you don't think you are capable of doing so, as long as you are focused and driven on your goals.

I also really liked the relationship with Neil Armstrong and his family that was showcased. A lot of these movies that depict space travel don't often think of going into a ton of depth when it comes to family relationships and what that family might think of their parent or spouse going into space. But that's where the emotion of this movie comes in. Space travel is, in reality, a super dangerous prospect. There's been several sad instances in the past where the team of astronauts board the rocket ship, being praised as heroes, only to all get blown up just moments later with some sort of system failure or other unexpected occurrences. I don't want to say too much, but the movie really hones in on that dangerous aspect, creating a lot of tension between Neil Armstrong and his wife. Given his more quiet nature, Neil Armstrong is about to leave without saying much, but is confronted in a scene that is unfortunately shown in the trailer where his wife forces him to confront his children about the prospect that he may not return. The acting in this sequence, and others like it, are spot on from both Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and Claire Foy as his wife. Yes, this is Ryan Gosling's movie, but personally I was most impressed with Claire Foy. Without her, this movie doesn't work as well.

Now lest you think I am simply going to praise this movie to the high-heavens simply because it is a Damien Chazelle movie, I will admit that there were a lot of moments in the movie where I was trying to like the movie a lot more than I actually was and it took me a bit of reflection to realize this. I was so pumped up with adrenaline, but I slowly became to realize that I wasn't being satisfied as much as I was wanting to. Yes, I stand by previous two paragraphs that I was fascinated by the dive into Neil Armstrong's personal character and his relationship with his wife and kids. But I will admit that I don't think the movie was always completely engaging throughout. And given that I was seeing a late showing after not getting a ton of sleep the night before, there were moments during the film where my brain decided that it was time for bed rather than time to watch the rest of the movie. Not helping the matters were that I purchased a ticket for a luxury IMAX seat and those chairs are super soft and comfortable. In fact, most times when I purchase a seat like that, I mostly regret the decision because I didn't pay to go take a nap in a soft seat. And I may have missed small parts of this movie, thus my overall thoughts might be improved on a re-watch.

However, speaking of IMAX, the sequences that I most certainly did NOT miss were the sequences of lift off. There's actually a few of these sequences with astronauts traveling in space vehicles, but the most impressive of the lot is the actual Apollo 11 mission where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the gang are off to the moon. And I don't know how much this will benefit those of you reading this as this may be more of an FYI than a recommendation, but this was a sequence that was greatly enhanced by seeing on an IMAX screen. The sound quality and visual effects of this moment were mind-boggling. It's to the point where I think this may be my all-time favorite IMAX scene in a movie. I felt like I was on that ship with them, taking an epic ride in a rocket ship to the moon. When a movie is able to transport me from being a simple spectator to feeling like I'm physically in the movie with these characters, that's when I get super impressed. But not only that, after this epic ride, I felt like I stepped out of the ship and walked on the moon. That moment of stepping out onto the moon and walking around was surreal. It felt like a dream come true. So if at all possible, buy a ticket for the biggest and loudest screen possible because that's what this was meant for.

I do want to address some of the controversies of the film and this does require diving into spoilers a bit, if that's even possible for a Neil Armstrong biopic. So be warned there. First off, in non-spoiler fashion, there's a lot of complaints about the shakiness of the movie and the frequency of close-up shots. I didn't have a problem with this because most of those came while we were riding around in space. That felt realistic to me. But more importantly, people are claiming this movie is historically inaccurate. I think that's wrong. This was actually based on the Neil Armstrong biography titled "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong." From what I can tell, a lot of this movie follows that biography quite closely. Chazelle also worked very closely with Armstrong's family to get that family dynamic right. He does take a few creative liberties, which I find small. First, the classic footstep picture on the moon was actually Buzz Aldrin's footstep. The movie makes it Armstrong's. And Neil Armstrong throws his child's bracelet thing into one of the craters of the moon. From what I'm gathering, that didn't actually happen. But his child really did pass away, so that seems like something Armstrong could've done. I thought it was a nice touch that fit with the themes of family.

The biggest controversy that I've heard, though, is that the movie does not depict Armstrong and Aldrin placing the American flag on the moon. There's a lot of people in a violent uproar about this. President Trump even responded in an interview saying that he was extremely disappointed in hearing that they didn't depict this scene. Buzz Aldrin also tweeted back in September a picture of him and other astronauts with the American flag on the moon. Thus the movie is being boycotted by many for not showing this. People are saying that this makes the movie anti-American for being too scared to show the flag, that it disrespects the flag and the astronauts for not showing it, and/or that Chazelle and the filmmakers were too scared of offending non-American viewers by portraying a pro-American scene in a movie. But I don't know. There's a lot of dumb reasons out there that people have boycotted movies and I think this is another instance of people looking for reasons to get offended. Because that's what we do in 2018. While this specific moment is absent from the film, the American flag is shown quite often in the movie and they do talk about beating the Russians. No, it's not the focus because this is not meant as a political thriller. But it's there.

Again, though, I think this all boils down to what you expect from the movie going in. If you want a political thriller about how much better the Americans are than the rest of the world, you might be disappointed. If you were hoping for an epic space adventure for the majority of the movie instead of simply one scene at the end, you might be disappointed. But if you go in realizing that this is a biopic of Neil Armstrong and you focus on that, then I think you're going to appreciate being informed about this man's life beyond what we all already know. I hate to use the b-word to describe this ("boring"), but there are moments that are less engaging than the other scenes that led me to doze off in my super comfortable luxury seat. Yes, this may have caused me to miss small sequences of the movie. Thus in theory, my opinion overall might improve on future viewings. But regardless of all this, I did find the family dynamic fascinating and I do think Ryan Gosling and Claire Foye give Oscar-worthy performances. And the Apollo 11 sequences at the end make the whole movie worth it. Oscars should be given for visual effects, original score and sound design because of this. The movie isn't as good as "Whiplash" and "La La Land." But that's OK. I'll still give "First Man" an 8/10.

No comments:

Post a Comment