Monday, January 28, 2019

First Man


With his third film, the undeniably talented filmmaker Damien Chazelle tackles the story of the first man to walk on the moon, and in the effort to bring his story down to earth, turns him and the NASA Apollo team -- the biggest, baddest, most brilliant rock stars of geekdom -- into "a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood."

Oh dear. Here we go... It's like half the movie wanted to be in awe of them, and the other half wanted to tear them down and "show them for what they really were." The direction and the writing felt at odds.

My biggest issue is with the treatment of Neil himself. I know next to nothing about him, so I'll try not to speculate too far, but it seems to be that Chazelle's (but perhaps more the writer, Josh Singer's) intention was to humanize his story. To that end the film begins with the death of his young daughter, and Neil spends the next eight years of his life in what is presented as a constant state of depression. His goal of reaching the moon seems dangerously obsessive, yet oddly joyless, and his ultimate success more the result of mere luck than the kind of hard work, training, and discipline it certainly took in reality.

Part of this has to be attributed to Ryan Gosling's deadpan performance, which I'm sure was intended, but ultimately comes across as cold. There are subtleties there, but mostly I found that the filming style created performance out of little substance. Those eye close ups -- they convey an idea of what lies underneath an emotionless stare. However, the character is written to have so much instability that I would worry about NASA's vetting process if I were convinced his characterization were accurate. It's unfathomable to me that having already lost a child, and fully prepared to risk his life, he wouldn't value the chance to say goodbye to his children, no matter how confident he may be of his return.

This is going to sound meaner than I mean it to mean, but I felt equal connection to him when he was standing with his sun-shield up as I did when he was actively emoting. i.e., the film conveyed emotion FOR him, not THROUGH him.

It smacks of sensationalism -- and why not? There's a reason this story hasn't been told before. As magnificent and history-making an event it was, it was simply too by-the-numbers successful endeavor to make a compelling film. So an effort is made to make it seem as dangerous and duct-taped together as possible; even to the point of presenting factual errors and stretching the truth for drama. For his part, Chazelle literally shakes the audience, and goes deep into the visceral experience. Shot on film, grainy, handheld camerawork, high-contrast and glaring lighting; it's nothing if not dramatic. And to its credit this style makes the open and still photography of the moon's surface all the more striking later.

That sequence was by far the most grabbing of the film -- and it was all due to the contrast of filming style. Yet Neil's character has no such moment of contrast. With juxtaposition of highs, his lows may have been more deeply empathized with, yet he's consistently despondent and frustratingly aloof, to the point of returning to the very thing this film ran from: that the man was unrelatable; but it a way that paints him badly -- as immature and anti-social -- instead of the positive if unattainable status he's more deserving of, as an absolute legend of history.

Claire Foy is great because Claire Foy is always great. There has never been a time when she has been less great than she was at every moment in this movie. However, I didn't care for the role her character took in the story.

I know there has to be some who would disagree with me and identified with this character. It is a character piece, and is put on with subtlety and rawness classic to indie sensibilities. It lost me as a character study, however, and the loss was felt because there was no backup to keep me on the hook. As a science-fact space-exploration film, it hardly even tries. I had no expectation to start, but found myself again and again wishing for the audience-friendly science explanations and easy structure of Ron Howard's Apollo 13. That film is the perfect storm of understandable science, balanced characters full of emotional range, and true-story credibility.

It seems almost unfair to compare the two, but therein is exactly my point. First Man intentionally sets aside in-depth explanation of technical aspects to drill deep into the character of one man; and with that singular goal, still fails to capture my affection for that one character the same way Apollo 13 did for at least four characters, while spending half it time as an educational video about how to make a CO² filter out of duct tape and a sock. Still, Chazelle didn't set out to make Apollo 13, but his own creation -- and it is beautiful in his way. There were moments worth the frustrations -- mostly in the visuals which were remarkably great. Despite its failure to capture me, I'll certainly retain a level of respect for the work as a whole.

It's beautiful, and there's value and appeal to that. But it's the kind of value that will diminish and be replaced in time. I far prefer Chazelle's work when he writes for himself. Then the heart matches his style and tone.

First Man is undeniably a visceral, and carefully and artfully crafted film. From a fictional perspective it's handled well, feeling both massively epic and massively intimate. From a real-life perspective the efforts and heroism of its characters seems intentionally minimized. And from a personal perspective, that minimization edges on disrespect, the intimacy lacks attraction, and the epic scope conveys little more than a cool, clouded glance into one of the most impressive and awesome feats of mankind.

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