'First Man' Tells the Definitive Space Race Story
I want to be very clear about a few things off the top: 1) First Man is one of the best movies of 2018 (I have it currently ranked No. 1) 2) Damien Chazelle is a genius filmmaker 3) This movie will last for decades beyond its release But serious question: Is it too early to call it a flop? After receiving a fairly wide release, the movie grossed just $16 million at the box office in its opening weekend, well below the second weekend totals of A Star is Born and Venom. That number has only risen to $30 million as of writing, still well below its $59 million production budget. Even more concerning is the critical buzz. After sitting atop the field as the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards for months, First Man can now be found in the third or fourth position in most sports books, with betting odds that place it firmly amongst the rest of the field. In my mind, it's a matter of wish fulfillment. If people were expecting La La Land2.0 from director Damien Chazelle, they're not going to find it here. That starry-eyed musical was dripping in sentimentality and crowd-pleasing idealism, both of which are in very short supply in First Man. More importantly, we've come to expect certain things out of a "space movie." Epic scale. World-conquering optimism. Advanced technology. Charismatic heroes. Gung-ho patriotism. That's simply not what this movie is. Chazelle's space flight is not grand and epic, it's claustrophobic and terrifying. Instead of hearing the whirs and whizzes and beeps of a spaceship, all we get are creaks and groans and pops. It turns out these astronauts didn't really know what they were doing, every decision just an educated guess with fateful stakes. And the triumphant applause back in Houston by a room full white dudes in short sleeve oxford shirts, an image we've become so familiar with in movies past? It plays as desperate relief, like everyone is thinking, "phew, that actually worked." Point being, Chazelle has somehow made a space movie that's not science fiction. It's practically documentary. The aesthetic bears out in shaky handheld camera shots, as if a camera crew happened to be following around Armstrong for this stretch of his life, zooming in close to the faces of lead actors Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy and staying there to capture every hint of emotion. (side note: if you had to pick two actors to show close ups of for two hours straight, you could do much worse than Gosling and Foy) The result is an incredibly visceral experience. You FEEL this movie in your bones. To experience it in the theater on the big screen is to live it, complete with more than a few first person-angled shots. Here's what Armstrong was seeing as he stepped out onto the surface of the moon. Here's what I'm seeing as I do it. It's utterly exhilarating. There are moments where I was afraid to breathe. Despite knowing what the ultimate outcome would be, I was nervous and certain of failure the whole time. For Chazelle to pull off a movie so different from his previous one shows his impressive range as a filmmaker. Music may have been his trademark, but it turns out he can make a kick-ass movie with large portions having no music at all, lest it take away from the vérité of the moment. This realism extends to the plot and characters. Neil Armstrong might be a hero, but he's far from heroic. He's a man struggling with the loss of friends and family, repressing his emotions, unable or unwilling to connect deeply with others. He's obsessed with the completion of his mission, less out of some boyhood wonder for outer space and more out of obligation to represent the lives lost in pursuit of it. He has to keep going, or what's this all been for? It's a sobering dose of reality. There are moments where you have to stop to think if it was all worth it, the whole space race, until the moment Armstrong's boot makes that first footprint on the dusty surface of another planet. The movie does an excellent job of showing both the significance of such an achievement on the world, and the cost. The sum of all these parts amounts to a definitive account of history. Whatever small details were exaggerated or altered for the movie's purposes are now buried in layers of true storytelling, and in time people will only remember what they've seen here. Think Malcolm X, or The Social Network, or even Apollo 13. Movies have shown us that art can actually become history. It may take time for people to find First Man, but once they've seen it, they'll almost certainly never forget it.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This is by far the most iconic space movie ever made, but we really don't even need to add the "space" qualifier there. Chazelle has said in interviews it was impossible not to be influenced by the massive shadow director Stanley Kubrick cast with this film. To say that the special effects here were "ahead of their time" is an insult to technology, because the sorts of things Kubrick pulled off simply didn't exist until this project. In fact, he invented an entire visual film language for space that has been copied in every space movie since. It's also just a bizarre movie. There's something like 25 minutes of movie before the first word of dialogue? Maybe a dozen times where you have no idea what's going on or why? Did Kubrick just invent FaceTime in the 60s? And that ending...woah boy, that ending. No idea what to tell you there. Yet it's impossible to watch this movie and not recognize its mastercraft. To add an additional layer of intrigue, Kubrick is the man whom conspiracy theorists have long believed faked the moon landing, shooting Armstrong's fateful walk on a sound stage. If you want to fall down a days-long rabbit hole, check that one out.
The Martian (2015)
This movie was a huge hit in 2015, so there's a pretty good chance you've already seen it. If not, it's hard to imagine a more entertaining way to spend a couple hours. The Martian is one example of the Hollywood machine working flawlessly--a super original book is adapted into a fantastic script, and then the perfect movie star is attached. It's the type of concept that hooks you in immediately (one man left behind to survive on Mars), and then has enough suspense and humor to keep you engaged throughout. But really this wouldn't work without a brilliant Matt Damon performance, which can draw more than a few comparisons to Tom Hanks in Castaway. It's everything you could ever want in a fun popcorn flick.