Edwin Arnaudin: My favorite part of First Man was when Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) tap-danced on the moon to a catchy original tune by the Oscar-winning musical team behind La La Land. But seriously, it’s been a while since we've had a really good space movie, and even longer for one to come along that’s rooted in history. Director Damien Chazelle’s reunion with his La La star and his first film not about a jazz boy filled that void for me and then some. Were you likewise spellbound?
Bruce Steele: The first five minutes, with Armstrong in a experimental jet soaring into the stratosphere and then facing a terrifying problem, were some of the most vertiginous moments at the movies for me since The Walk. Chazelle works hard to reproduce the claustrophobia and anxiety of being encased in a cockpit or a space capsule, with so much at stake and so little control, and all the flight scenes are terrific, right up to the start of the moon walk. Unfortunately, the earthbound scenes wore me out in a different way. The takeaway message of First Man appears to be: The moon is the ultimate place to go to be sad.
Edwin: After our screening, we discussed how different this movie is from Apollo 13 in that it’s a melancholy film about a successful mission instead of a triumphant, heartwarming one about a catastrophic trip to the moon. That’s all true and a potential deterrent for moviegoers looking for a cheery time at the cinema, but it’s also consistent with Chazelle’s filmography. Ignoring his lousy 2009 musical debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, both Whiplash and La La Land and now First Man embrace genre standards just enough to play by the rules, then subvert expectations to enthralling ends. For me, it’s been an extraordinary trilogy.
Bruce: I loved Whiplash unreservedly, but thought La La Land took a mid-movie wrong turn from which it never quite recovered, despite its great musical numbers. For me, First Man has nothing much to offer except those briefs, disconcerting flight scenes. I mean, making a downbeat movie about one of humankind's signature achievements is fine if you have a solid alternative history to offer, but First Man takes the Ray approach, reducing the emotional lives of presumably complex people to the early, traumatic death of a young child. You didn't find the constant beating of that singular drum tiresome and repetitious?
Edwin: I feared it might play out in the way you allude, but think it works well as the key motivating factor for Armstrong to excel as an astronaut, and one that’s compounded and made more complex with each colleague death that he’s similarly unable to process. Gosling’s trademarked reserved facial reactions are a superb fit for the human machine that Armstrong becomes as the Gemini and Apollo missions progress and ask more and more of him, physically, psychologically and emotionally. Opposite him, I think Claire Foy is nearly as good as Armstrong’s wife Janet. She does a lot with essentially a one-note part that feels accurate to the role NASA wives were forced to accept.
Bruce: One-note is right. Foy is a great actress and throws herself into the role, but she's basically angry about her husband's job from start to finish. The movie is short on those "but you know I love you" moments of tenderness that might temper the anger. "One-note" applies equally to the otherwise fine supporting cast of fellow astronauts: mouthy Aldrin, sensitive Ed White (Jason Clarke), crusty Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), quiet Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), and so on. The Right Stuff, with its layered portraits of bold men, this is not.
Edwin: And it doesn’t need to be. First Man feels more mission-oriented with the side astronauts serving their purposes as cogs in the machine, and the way they’re written and performed tell me what I need to know about them. The same goes for administrators Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds). They’re all working toward something extraordinary and Chazelle makes good on that promise by depicting the progress and setbacks with a sense of awe and adventure that had me rapt.
Bruce: I was definitely rapt during the entire Apollo 11 mission, which was involving and intense. The sequence of landing on the moon is stunningly filmed, and the awe when the astronauts are able to open the door and take in the view is palpable. Then Chazelle can't resist beating that same old, sad drum again, and the sequence is cut short (skipping the iconic flag planting entirely), and the whole movie wraps in an impossible-to-believe scene between Neil and Janet just minutes later. The technical wizardry is top-notch, but as in La La Land, Chazelle fumbles the central relationship and mortally wounds his movie.
Edwin: I didn’t have that experience with either relationship. Neither yields a textbook feel-good Hollywood ending, yet both feel true to their characters and the films overall. As he did with his previous two movies, Chazelle is challenging viewers’ histories with and preconceived notions of certain cinematic tropes, and for me he’s also offering painful truths that few filmmakers are willing to confront. In the moment and especially upon further reflection, I find those bold moves thoroughly rewarding.
Bruce: Challenging expectations means providing a substantial substitute for what audiences anticipate, and First Man doesn't do it. Chazelle's lack of imagination extends to his direction here as well, which takes on the Kathryn Bigelow false equivalency between handheld camera and realism. There's absolutely no reason to shoot all the dialogue scenes with shaky cameras. It's just annoying and takes you out of the moment, over and over again.
Edwin: As with Bigelow’s and Paul Greengrass’ best films, when handheld camerawork is done this well, it doesn’t bother me. Doing so allows us to get closer to these characters in pivotal moments and grants the scenes an immediacy that I doubt we’d get with other means. The slight shakiness and somewhat grainy stock also add a sense of period appropriateness — so again, not deal-breakers for me. Did any terrestrial scenes work for you?
Bruce: The only terrestrial scene I thought worked well was the launchpad disaster, not any of the domestic drama. And I'm sorry, but you can get just as close to characters and create the same immediacy with tripods and Steadycams. Handheld just calls attention to itself, and it you're not going to use it like Woody Allen (Husbands and Wives) or Oliver Stone (Born on the Fourth of July) and have the camera reflect the chaos of the events it’s recording, it's only virtue is to speed up the filming time and save money, which is why a lot of TV shows use it. On a big-budget shoot, having a cameraman stand still and hold the camera not quite stable to shoot dialogue is just pretentious. If it calls attention to any period, it's the present, since the technique would never have been used by top filmmakers in the 1960s. That suggests Chazelle believes his distance from the events gives him a new perspective on the narrative. But other than the Armstrongs' relentless grief over their dead daughter, I don't know what that new perspective is. What is it?
Edwin: I think it’s that, while often thrilling, being an astronaut isn’t the constant thrill ride many assume. First Man posits that it’s a job, one that’s frequently tedious and takes more of a personal toll than the public realizes, despite us civilians knowing the general risks that are taken and the human losses that NASA has endured. Combine that viewpoint — which I didn’t get from Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff — with strong performances, suspenseful flight scenes, and the majesty of the lunar surface and it’s one of my favorite films of the year. I give it an A.
Bruce: I'd like to see the movie you describe, and I think throughout this discussion you have precisely expressed the director’s intentions. But I didn’t see the movie you saw, nor the one Chazelle intended. Instead, I saw a movie about two inconsolable parents who treat themselves, each other, their surviving children and some of their friends terribly as a result, scenes edited together with some amazing space flight recreations that come to an abrupt end just when they were about to reach a climax. I give it a C-minus.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Universal Pictures)