Sunday, November 4, 2018
NASA Watch: First Man (2018)
Format: Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane
The early reviews at, I believe, the Toronto Film Festival for First Man (2018) sold the movie as the best thing since sliced bread. Follow up reviews for the movie - once regular ol' non-festival movie critics got ahold of it, were not as kind - balancing out the festival buzz that can occur.
I'd planned to see the movie immediately upon release, but was travelling/ have otherwise been occupied. I'm an extremely casual NASA history fan - because I know what real NASA nerds look like and I am not that. At all. But I know most of the bigger names and I understand the space program pretty well through about Apollo 14 or so, and then some of the Shuttle era.
I'm also not as ready to throw stones at La La Land as some, which was the last project by director Damien Chazelle (seriously, who hurt you people?), even if I agree on some of the points - especially about Hollywood needing to be less in love with itself.
Taking on Neil Armstrong struck me as a weirdly ambitious project, but one worthy of tackling. Frankly, in my lifetime, Armstrong avoided publicity and the press and managed to slip into myth immediately by more or less becoming a cipher and enigma. You can Google his image, but he didn't gin up the on-camera personality of his fellow astronauts like Buzz Aldrin nor did he seek to parlay his fame into politics, etc... like John Glenn.
Up front: for those of us who watch and re-watch The Right Stuff on the regular, watched From the Earth to the Moon, Apollo 13, etc... the dangers and rigors of space as well as the energy and drama of spaceflight have been captured before. That does not mean this movie does not meet or exceed most of these movies - and, in fact - via presentation of what's occurring, by not making the movie hardware porn or putting a certain, expected flair of triumph and achievement with YOU as the witness - but rather by focusing on the experience of the astronauts and respecting how harrowing anything going wrong in the capsules indeed was - I kinda think this movie is going to get some serious reviews as the next NASA history movie gets made.
But this is the first of these movies that's less a narrative of the march to progress as about the inner-life of an actual astronaut, and one that feels far more real than the myth building of The Right Stuff or the charming actors in space take via Apollo 13.
A couple of years back I read Failure is Not an Option by retired NASA flight director (I highly recommend to anyone in management in technology, or to humanity in general), and I'll argue the movie does a remarkable job of recreating the actual events that occurred during Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 (neither went smoothly, and Armstrong's cool head saved both). I'm not sure folks tend to be aware of how shakey things were at NASA as we were hurling people into space in metal boxes, but it was not without risk, my friends and to was kind of amazing to see all that play out.
Following the Armstrong Family from the early 1960's to the conclusion of Apollo 11 in '69, the movie takes a look at a family in mourning as they lose their young daughter to cancer, and Neil Armstrong - ever the engineer - buries himself in work to grapple with a grief he never quite manages.
I hesitate to say more - the movie is not about a clockwork plot, but a character study, told more in what the characters do, not say. And the deaths that pile up and are looked at with romantic eyes as the cost of progress by daredevils living on the edge in The Right Stuff here becomes a series of losses, each adding to the grief.
This isn't the story we like to tell ourselves as we think of our Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts as legendary explorers, and that may account for some takes on the movie, a slow box office for the film and why certain politicians decided they needed to criticize a movie they hadn't seen (clearly), claiming it's somehow un-American.
Hats off to Claire Foy who plays Janet Armstrong, Neil's long-suffering wife. Fortunately, the movie is never tempted to suggest she's the shrill anchor keeping Neil back, and together Foy and the filmmakers bypass "sympathetic" to create a character on equal footing in the film with an American legend. We've seen no shortage of widows and women afraid of being widowed in NASA movies since The Right Stuff, and I give her credit for making her part deeply understandable - a tough sell in part because so much of the movie is not in what is said between the characters.
Gosling, meanwhile, goes on to sell another quiet loner performance.
The movie is littered with familiar faces dropped into the roles of familiar NASA types, and you all have access to see who plays who. Kyle Chandler is inspired casting for Deke Slayton, and I quite liked Corey Stoll's Aldrin. But it's a who's who sort of casting, right up to Lukas Haas as Michael Collins.
And if you need some anecdotal evidence for how well received the movie was in my theater - this movie has been out for weeks, and normally that means it's folks just showing up to see whatever is out without much thought, and those audiences are usually the hardest audiences at the Alamo. This movie has a lot of silences, and you could hear a pin drop in the theater. Just absolutely into it.
Anyhoo - do see it on the big screen with a respectable sound system. You won't regret it.