Friday, October 19, 2018

FIRST MAN? HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM


It should be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I’m a fan of movies about space. Space adventure, like Star Trek. Space horror, like Alien. Near-future space, like Gravity. Even space comedy, like Guardians of the Galaxy.

But I’m happiest when I’m in the theater watching truly inspiring space history: The Right Stuff; Apollo 13; Hidden Figures. What made these films not only interesting and watchable for space nerds like me, but among the most acclaimed and well-loved movies for audiences at large, is that they made the heroes and heroines of the American space program known to us as real people. Those high flyers we had only seen in glossy magazine photographs, or blurred images from impossibly far away (or not at all, in the case of the NASA “computers”) solidified into human beings in those films, thanks to the actors and the filmmakers.

The real first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, in 1969.
Not so, I’m sorry to say, for the latest film biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong, First Man. Even the formidable acting skills of Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, first man on the moon, are no match for the post-modern, emotionally-detached filmmaking style of Damien Chazelle (LaLaLand). Instead of coming across as a strong-but-silent type trying desperately to hide the pain of the loss of his young daughter from cancer early in the film, Gosling too often goes through his scenes like an expressionless zombie. Claire Foy (The Crown), as Armstrong’s wife Janet, is normally solid, but here she overbalances on the shrill side in a vain attempt to get some reaction out of her partner.

I don’t blame the actors; I certainly don’t blame Armstrong, because I don’t believe for a minute that he was that kind of guy. I blame Chazelle, and this recent tendency to remain distant from the subject that is overtaking film. The camera may close in on its subject, but it remains emotionally at arm’s length. Even though we see Armstrong at his most private, vulnerable moments, it is though we are  mere flies on the wall, unable to empathize. Point of view, in fact, is a problem here. It really should be Armstrong’s film, from his POV. We should feel his emotions, but we never do.

There are times when this lack of POV works like the cinema verité of old and serves the film well. When we’re in the cockpit of an X-15 going beyond the stratosphere, or in the Gemini capsule being launched into space. When something goes wrong after docking with a second (unmanned) vehicle in space and both capsule and docking cylinder start spinning out of control. And—most spectacularly—when Armstrong and Aldrin land on the moon.

In those moments we in the audience can truly feel as if we are there. Those jolts of adrenalin alone may be worth the price of admission.

But we are soon down to Earth again, where we may be grounded for some time, searching for the inspiration to head into space again.

Cheers, Donna

2 comments:

  1. Great review, Donna. I was so looking forward to this one (in spite of Hollywood feeling they needed to cut a key historical scene to "make a statement"), but I fear the lack of what we writers call deep POV is going to be a problem for me. It was the character insights that really made Apollo 13 and Gravity the great viewing experiences they were, and if this one falls short, it's really a huge opportunity missed, IMHO.

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  2. What a pity. I loved Apollo 13, Hidden Figures, The Right Stuff. So I'll watch this but I'll make sure I don't expect too much.

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