To the moon: NASA saga takes flight
By: Matt Brunson
It’s immediately clear that Ryan Gosling possesses the right stuff when it comes to bringing astronaut Neil Armstrong to life in First Man (three out of four stars), but it’s not readily apparent that Damien Chazelle adopts the right approach in dramatizing the events surrounding the saga of the first man on the moon.
Rather than present us with a larger-than-life hero — something America desperately could use right about now — Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, and Josh Singer, the Oscar-winning writer of Spotlight (here adapting James R. Hansen’s book), have instead played up Armstrong’s human dimensions, showing how the devastating loss of his little girl to a brain tumor has informed his frequently distant detachment from his wife (Claire Foy) and their young sons. Even when he’s in his own home, Neil seems to be a million miles away, a designation that makes him an ideal astronaut but a problematic husband and father.
Initially, the glumness of the characters ends up affecting the overall project: Reaching the moon remains one of this nation’s most remarkable achievements, but the movie largely keeps its emotions in check, tackling the tale in the most workman-like manner possible and reluctant to allow the camera to stray far from Gosling’s sad, soulful eyes. Naturally, this approach has led to some nitwits on the right complaining about the notable absence of overt jingoism (only an orange baboon would whine about the idiotic flag controversy; oh, wait, one did) and some nitwits on the left complaining about the movie’s intense focus on a white male. But First Man isn’t a political movie — instead, it’s ultimately revealed to be a deeply humanistic one. The chilly demeanor present throughout much of the picture eventually lifts like a fog, and the final stretch of the film — the actual Apollo 11 mission — is a marvel of tone and technique, with Chazelle taking away our collective breath through absolute immersion into the experience. Chazelle’s approach might keep emotions grounded longer than necessary, but First Man nevertheless takes flight when it matters most.
We’re now knee-deep into fall, which means the theaters have begun cramming their auditoriums with all manner of typical seasonal fare — i.e. blockbuster wanna-bes that are expected to keep concession stands popping for the remainder of 2018 and award contenders that hope to be remembered when critics and Academy members start handing out congratulatory baubles with all the glad-handing generosity of the Wizard of Oz.
First Man (reviewed above) is a worthy selection for a night out at the cinema, but the best new release is undoubtedly The Hate U Give (three and a half stars out of four), a powerful drama (based on Angie Thomas’ novel) about an African-American teenager (an excellent Amandla Stenberg) whose sociopolitical consciousness is awakened after she witnesses her close friend (Algee Smith) fatally shot by a white cop. Bad Times at the El Royale (two and a half stars out of four) is a throwback to the Tarantino days by writer-director Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), who fashions a clever if ultimately clunky drama in which a number of disparate sorts (played by Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson and Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo, among others) all find themselves warily circling each other at the titular hotel. The Old Man & the Gun (two and a half out of four) finds Robert Redford easing into retirement with a moderately entertaining story about a man who continues to rob banks well into his senior years. Lastly, Venom (one and a half stars out of four) is the worst superhero saga to venture down the pike in quite some time, with Tom Hardy aping Jim Carrey in a stridently stupid and eternally annoying film in which reporter Eddie Brock finds himself sharing body space with a wisecracking alien who enjoys biting off people’s heads.