Sunday, November 25, 2018

First Man review

Are new cinematic takes on particular subjects already covered advisable? Or should it be that a different look at a subject or genre will work? Because that's what director Damen Chazelle's First Man is. It's a different, unusual  take on America's space program, this time it's the story of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstorng.

Based on the biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James Hansen, the film starts out with test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) struggling to fly and land the NASA test spacecraft X-15. It's harrowing and one of the constant reminders that astronauts would face death at every turn. The movie then shows Armstrong's other struggle. His child daughter Karen is suffering from cancer. She succumbs to it and her memory haunts Armstrong for the rest of his life. At the same time, his wife Janet (Claire Foy) cares for Armstrong's two sons. After the X-15 test flights, Armstrong applies for astronaut and makes the cut. He is befriended by astronaut Ed White. (Jason Clarke) The rest of the film is the story of Armstrong's participation in NASA's Gemini and Apollo space programs. The last which leads to Apollo 11 and the moon landing.

Armstrong was quiet.  He was an enigma.  Gosling plays a man who maintains an even strain while suppressing his emotions.  He's even more Spock than Spock.  Janet (Claire Foy) struggles with raising a family and dealing with the idea that her husband may not come back from work.

Director Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer have decided to make this movie an indie like take on an legendary  story.  Whereas, the  predictable way of doing this movie would be similar to another film on the space program, The Right Stuff. (1983)  That movie had an epic feel.  Chazelle's approach is a swing and miss.  First Man feels small compared to the titanic   subject matter.

This small approach to an epic leads to a dull film.  First, Chazelle keeps the lighting dim, diffuse and strained.  The Armstrong home looks like a set in an indie movie..  Second, many times he films the astronauts from a first person view or from within the spaceship.  Yeah, it gives the movie a claustrophobic vibe but the audience doesn't get what is happening because you don't see the ships from the outside.  For example, during a Gemini mission, Armstrong's ship starts to spin out of control.  But because the focus is on Armstrong, we don't really have a good feel of what is happening with the ship. That's drama draining.

Then there is the music score.  Composer Justin Hurwitz's melodic talents which were vividly demonstrated in La La Land (2016) are set aside.  This movie demands the fanfare of The Right Stuff's Bill Conti. Hurtwitz decides to go Philip Glass.  Any emotional boost is non-existent.  His score is musical wallpaper.

The saving grace of this movie is that it is competently made.  I can admire the craft but not it's emotional impact  If you're looking for a dramatic telling of the Apollo project, you should try to find the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon.  (1998) First Man can be as barren as the moon.  The grade is C Plus.

 .  . .   

No comments: