Review: First Man
No Spoilers- unless you don't know we went to the moon by now.
This movie is incredible. Don’t go see A Star is Born, its sucks poop. Overall, I give it a C. But this movie. This one. This is an A +. One word for you, C-I-N-E-M-A-T-O-G-R-A-P-H-Y. My only critique on it is that he should have dropped the use of the hand held for domestic dialog scenes but maybe that was the point: That everything in Armstrong’s life was a bit wobbly, and he had to correct it. So if was used as a metaphor, then fine, I’ll accept the hand held in dialog scenes. With the exception of that critique, this movie was perfection.
Where Stanley Kubrick left off, Linus Sandgren shot off into the stratosphere. The images in this movie leave you breathless. A woman next to me exclaimed, “Wow,” as they approached the lunar surface. It seemed so haunting and totally, literally, out of this world. It wasn’t just the juxtapostioning of light and dark, as you found in A Space Odyssey, it was the way the light would spin, dance and melt over surfaces. Ryan Gosling’s eyelashes for example, were bathed by light as if it were truly water. Every pore on faces made a difference. Facial peach fuzz became a celestial event. The choice not to use make-up made all the actors far more authentic and the camera vs acting work much more high stakes. And the atmosphere!!!! All shades of blue and green and white. Sometimes there would be a glow from the heat, a flutter of sparks or even a finite horizon, Armstrong’s singular focus.
That rusty, less crisp focus from the early 80’s was back and it made everything much more personal. The ever-tight focus on the astronaut’s faces left us searching continually for what they might be thinking. How much fear can we see? We long for Neil to feel, and yet we must make peace with his irises in a 100 yard stare for most of the movie. Ryan Gosling’s study of will and focus is unreal. The camera captures him so movingly as we know his history and yet are also put in the position of his wife, waiting for him to give us a little humor, levity and affection. But Neil can’t get distracted. He is going to the moon. He has to remain still while all else around him spins.
Not a screw, color, seam or latch of any ship used in this movie went left unnoticed. All angles of flying were taken in. An engineer’s dream! I’m not sure if a movie has ever captured sound and sight so perfectly. The scenes for take-off were incredible. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a raw and primordial screech or moan out of metal. The opening scene says it all, this experience is all new to the human race. I absolutely felt like I was in those ships with those men. This union of sight and sound is the mark of one of the rare occurrences in film when it goes from a really good movie, to a masterpiece.
A second word for this movie would be S-O-U-N-D. You are not spared any part of the spectrum of what the hell is that? kinds of sounds. They are eerie and ominous. The music also is so good and adds to the whole experience. And then, my favorite of all sounds, silence. I’d like to put my vote in for Silence for Best Supporting Character. This is what made the movie have texture. Without it, we don’t experience the walk on the moon. A walk on the moon has no sound. Something that changed our existence, didn’t make any noise. This choice to “show” that is brilliant.
Every spectrum of noise in this movie speaks to ours fears and hopes. The crispness of the silence only adds to that wonderment and awe. These choices by artists are what make the differences between witnessing and experiencing. I have no doubt this movie will win for Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. If you’ve never paid attention to sound in a movie, you should, and this film should set your standard.
Finally, directing. I’m not sure I noticed it. And that’s a good thing. The caliber of actors, writers, the aforementioned talents and the producers more than likely allowed the director to be more hands off - only a true leader allows those who work for him/her to express their best in their own way. One big choice he obviously made was in timing. We watched in real time, the take off scenes, the very slow process of landing and so many other lingers that not only speak of a slower time but in how these things are actually experienced. There is no fast-forward or cut to the end. I am so happy to have “seen” Damien Chazelle’s choice to go minute by minute through just noise. So many other directors would have beefed it all up with crappy music or cheesy, emotionally laden looks from one astronaut to the other. Puke.
One thing Chazelle wanted to make clear was that even though Neil is working in a linear trajectory with Nasa, his personal life is mixed with memories, the need to be alone and the longing for release. Because of this, the script had to be sparse. Neil was not a talker. Honoring this personality trait becomes part of the artistic choice. It makes it a film rather than a movie. Thank goodness.
Another key realization about this movie is its commentary on solitude and distance. (Here’s where I get artsy and might ruin the film for some who wish to have no impression of the subtext, so stop reading here if you’re one of those people. Just pick up on the next paragraph). Two people who love each other very much but keep to themselves about their pain. He, outwardly ambitious, yet emotionally removed, but we know he’s capable of feeling deeply. She, distant, steady, yet not willing to succumb to the feeling most people had around the astronauts, numbness. Distance. Solitude. Armstrong leaves his daughter’s funeral to express emotions only to himself. He needs to be alone after his friend’s funerals. His grief is processed at a distance. What furthest place can you imagine you could go from Earth? Lucky for Armstrong, he actually can go to the moon. He can only cope with life’s tragedies in solitude. The movie is called First Man and yet there were two people in that ship. He needs that moment for that footprint. So, “giant leap for mankind,” becomes ironic and surprising from a man who wants to get away from everyone. In the end, we see his cause. His personal reason for getting to the ultimate distance. A return on a promise before language could express it.
Chazell’s genius is in letting the movie go. Just let the moment speak for itself. All Neil has to do is steer everything steady. We don't need to make it more than what it was. All of it was exhilarating. All of it was history. All of it was an adventure full of loss and gain and ego and frustration. No one needs to add anything to an already full moment. All of it was captured beautifully. I stand by my statement, it is a masterpiece. Go see this film.
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