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Monday, February 18, 2019

OSCARS 2019: First Man (2018)

For all the bitching I do about how predictable the Oscars are, the truth is you never really know what movies they'll love and what they'll appear indifferent too. If you had asked me early last year, I would've bet money on “First Man” being a front-runner at the 2019 Oscars. This was, after all, Damien Chazelle's follow-up to his Oscar-winning “La La Land.” He was re-teaming with that film's Ryan Gosling. Even better, it was a biopic about extraordinary historical figure Neil Armstrong. This should've been a lock in the top categories, right? Despite receiving largely positive reviews, “First Man” failed to connect with audiences and created at least one extremely stupid controversy. While the film received four nominations in technical categories – Production Design, Visual Effects, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing – it was left out of any of the bigger areas.

Neil Armstrong is a NASA test pilot devoted to his work or so it would seem. While he pilots the X-15 test rockets, his mind is with his sick daughter Karen. When she passes, he's heartbroken but continues his devotion to the space program. He's soon chosen for Project Gemini, the first mission to dock two shuttles in space. Though nearly a catastrophe, the mission is largely a success. Armstrong is chosen for the Apollo 1 mission to land a man on the moon. Though work related tragedy and personal struggles haunt Armstrong, he's determined to succeed.

While other famous astronauts went into politics or where happy to make pop culture appearances, Neil Armstrong was always a more enigmatic and quiet figure. “First Man” attempts to get at the humanity underneath Armstrong's famous modesty and finds a surprisingly neurotic soul. He's shown as an intensely private man, always putting a stoic face on in public. He doesn't even cry at his daughter's funeral, hiding away to weep in isolation. He's shown as an almost obsessive recorder of notes. At a party, Armstrong retreats to the backyard to look at the stars. When a guest attempts to reach out to him, Armstrong rudely rebuffs him. When pressed by his wife, he simply describes the space program as “neat.” While the character never admits as much, he's deeply unhappy and wishes to achieve his mission more to honor those who have died. It's a fascinating portrayal of a real, complicated man who has largely been absorbed into American legend. Armstrong's sons, portrayed in the film, have said it's an accurate depiction of their father.

Chazelle sought utmost realism when designing “First Man.” He depicts the space program with the same intensity shown in “Whiplash,” as a potentially self-destructive goal pursued by men determined to achieve something greater than themselves. The opening scene focuses on Armstrong's face as the X-15 trip goes wrong. Similarly, when the Gemini 6 shuttle nearly crashes, the camera's spin. The editing becomes fierce. The sound design ramps up. The film wants the audience to feel the panic and chaos the astronauts felt in the moment. We see this same approach to a failed testing of the moon-lander or a trip in the gyroscope. Yet perhaps it is worth it, as in the startling beautiful scenes depicting Armstrong seeing Earth from space for the first time. Or the quiet starkness of his trip across the moon's surface. The reoccurring themes of Chazelle's previous film – the ecstasy of succeeding at a goal, the bloody sacrifice made to reach that point – hold true.

Ryan Gosling seems especially well chosen to play Armstrong. Gosling is quickly coming to specialize in strong, silent types. Gosling's movie star good looks and charms speak to Armstrong's all-American values. Yet the actor also gets at the alienation the man felt, grasping the mysterious drives that pushed him forward and understanding his unwillingness to share them. Look at a brilliant key scene – telling his sons he may not return from the moon voyage – for a good example of that. This contrasts with Claire Foy as his wife, Janet. Foy's panics and frets, over her sons and her husband. Eventually, she is nearly pushed to the limit by Neil's practically obsessive focus to achieve his goal. While Neil keeps his secrets to himself, Foy's Janet is an open wound, desperate for love and reaffirmation that her husband is not always great at expressing.

Why “First Man” didn't succeed with audience or Academy voters is hard to say. It's a brilliant, stirring motion picture, fantastically acted, beautifully directed, with strong emotions just under the surface. Perhaps its long run time and decision not to be a typical, feel-good biopic put off movie goers. The dumb-ass manufactured outrage that the film “wasn't patriotic enough” certainly didn't help. (The movie isn't about Patriotism or even the American government but the men who did these things.) And this just seems to be the year the Academy leaped on feel-good, middle-of-the-road garbage like “Green Book” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” rather than genuinely challenging and fulfilling art. I think history will recognize “First Man” as the achievement it is. Its score is absolutely brilliant too, by the way. [9/10] 

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