The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Eugenio Derbez, Matthew Macfadyen, Richard E. Grant, Misty Copeland, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman

Directors: Lasse Hallström, Joe Johnston

Writer: Ashleigh Powell


The tale that we know as The Nutcracker originally comes from an 1816 short story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann about a young girl called Marie who helps the Nutcracker defeat the evil Mouse King and follows him to a magical kingdom populated by dolls where she sees many wondrous things. This story formed the basis for the libretto to the Tchaikovsky ballet where they enormously simplified what was already a pretty uncomplicated story in order to fit a two-act structure that could accommodate several extended dance sequences with the minimal (if any) use of plot. In the century since its composition The Nutcracker has grown into a phenomenon that continues to be performed all over the world with music that ranks among the most beloved and familiar in the entire classical canon. It has also become one of the many public domain properties that Hollywood likes to readapt and reinvent every so often. Since it’s been a little over eight years since The Nutcracker last received the cinematic treatment (which is about four decades in Hollywood years), Disney has thus revived the story once again, this time with not one, not two, not even three, but four realms.

I would have thought that if anything could serve as an example to cinema of how to create a visual spectacle and convey a story through actions, expressions and gestures rather than dialogue, it would be a ballet. Such inspiration would be invaluable to a fairy tale such as this where the audience’s investment depends on their being bewitched by a spell of cinematic majesty and whimsical feeling. Nothing kills this spell faster or more assuredly than the logic and banality that comes with conventional narrative and explanatory dialogue. Think of the silent charm of My Neighbour Totoro or the dream-like wonder of The Wizard of Oz. How much more trite and tiresome would these movies be if they relentlessly apologised for being fairy tales by explaining what everything is and how they work and adding conflict and circumstances beyond what’s needed to set up the characters’ motivations and the emotional stakes? What if, instead of the living manifestation of the cruelties and horrors of the grown-up world in Dorothy’s adolescent eyes, the Wicked Witch of the West was shown as more of a diabolical tyrant bent on conquering Oz using the ruby slippers? What if we were treated to endless exposition detailing the history and politics of Oz and the mechanics of the ruby slippers and their magical powers before eventually watching Dorothy lead the Munchkins to liberation from the evil baddie which (spoiler) turns out to be Glinda or the Wizard or perhaps the Cowardly Lion for all I care? What would any of that have to do with the movie’s timeless message that there’s no place like home?

That fairy tales do not all have to be remodelled into fantasy epics is something that Disney used to understand. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Jungle Book and the 1951 Alice in Wonderland are all films that barely have plots to speak of because they are so much more interested in exploring their worlds and characters and finding ways to enchant the audience (all three have since been given remakes by Disney which attempted to add greater stakes to their stories). When the epic narrative does work and you get an empowering film like Frozen that’s one thing, but even that is a story that relies more on emotion than logic. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms has more in common with the 2010 Alice in Wonderland, a film that tried to apply a logical plot in the form of a chosen-one narrative to a story that not only worked but thrived without one. When you try to apply reason to a fantastical story, you’re inviting the viewer to apply a level of scrutiny that outlandish plots, strange happenings and bizarre characters cannot easily stand up against. That film not only completely missed the point in terms of what made the Lewis Carroll books so wonderful, it also failed on its own terms with a dull protagonist and a tired, predictable story that failed to score a single emotional beat. This movie isn’t as bad as that but it has many of the same problems.

The hero of this tale is the generically smart and resourceful Clara (Mackenzie Foy), the daughter of Marie from the original story. She and her family are going through their first Christmas together since the mother’s passing and her loss is still deeply felt. On Christmas Eve Clara and her siblings, elder sister Louise (Ellie Bamber) and little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet), are each bequeathed a gift left to them by their mother. Clara receives a strange Fabergé egg, one without a key or any other apparent means of opening it. The family then heads for their usual Christmas ball, held every year by Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman) where her father Benjamin (Matthew Macfadyen) expects her to put on a happy face and dance with him. Clara doesn’t feel much like dancing though and instead seeks out her godfather with whom she shares a passion for mechanisms and machinery. She learns that it was he who first built the silver egg for Marie and that she had always wanted to pass it on to her daughter. When the time comes for the children to receive their gifts from the evening’s host, Clara follows the trail leading to hers and stumbles into a world quite unlike her own.

Thus Clara finds herself in the same magical world that her mother discovered as a young girl, a world of snow, flowers, sweets and mice. However, in the years since Marie first arrived, the world of the Four Realms has fallen on hard times. Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements has declared war on the other three realms, a war that has engulfed the realms in destruction and chaos. Clara meets the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) who remembers her mother well and reveals that she is the princess of the Four Realms. It falls onto her to defend the Lands of Sweet, Snowflakes and Flowers from the wrath of the Fourth Realm and to restore peace once again. What follows is a hero’s journey as Clara braves the dangers of the Four Realms, finds the answers she seeks to the questions left by her mother, and learns to trust in herself. Oh, also there’s a Nutcracker in the film. He’s a soldier boy played by Jayden Fowora-Knight who occasionally helps Clara but otherwise is sort of just there. There is absolutely no reason for him to be the titular character except that Disney wouldn’t be able to franchise this movie without the Nutcracker name.

Like with Tim Burton’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms demonstrates the futility of trying to incorporate a by the numbers plot into a story that’s guided by feeling rather than logic. Narrative conventions that we can see coming from a million miles away and lengthy explanations about who everyone is, what exactly is happening and where they need to go next cannot help but drain the spell of its magic. Nowhere is this more evident than in what is by default the film’s best scene. This is when Clara and the residents of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace gather before a stage to watch a re-enactment of the Four Realms’ history in the form of, what else, a ballet. This scene features real sets and practical effects, Tchaikovsky’s original music and a cameo by Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a prima ballerina in the American Ballet Theatre. This would be an inspired way to provide the audience with an entire wealth of exposition and pay tribute to the story’s origins while still allowing them to marvel in the wonder and whimsicalness of this universe. If only the Sugar Plum Fairy could stop nattering away every five seconds with her incessant commentary on what’s actually happening because she doesn’t appear to understand how ballet works! If this film had enough confidence in its own wondrousness that it didn’t feel the need to hold the viewer’s hand all the way through, this scene could have been spectacular.

Even then, however, that ballet scene would simply have been the highlight in an unremarkable film with a formulaic plot and a bland protagonist. Clara, I gather, is intended to be a response to the Victorian heroine archetype that her mother fell under; these pretty, joyful and otherwise unremarkable young girls who assume passive roles in their own stories and more often than not need to be rescued by the male hero. This heroine however is no damsel in distress; she’s clever, talented and brave, all good qualities for a main character to have. She’s also as dull as a rock. The movie operates on the assumption that making the main character technically savvy and having her fight a few soldiers counts as giving her a personality, but actions don’t mean much if there’s isn’t some kind of feeling or motivation inspiring them. The film tries to make this the grief that Clara feels from losing her mother, but there’s so little there of substance that the movie cannot hope to make it bear the weight of its emotional crux (on a side note, I find it funny how Clara was clearly the mother’s favourite to the point that her two siblings don’t matter in the slightest). Foy doesn’t manage to bring any kind of spark to her character and mostly just drifts between scenes without direction, acting like she’s more interested in looking the part of the pretty princess than she is in becoming the resourceful, adventurous girl wonder that the film wants her to be (for more on what a brilliant, daring, inventive princess with a spirited personality can be, see Shuri in Black Panther and Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).

It seems that most of the effort went into making this film look the part and there are some aspects worth praising. The costumes and make up make for some fun character designs such as Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy, whose frilly dress and elaborate hair-do is entirely imbued with the sugary pink of cotton candy, and Freeman’s Dorsselmeyer, a Victorian nobleman sporting a steampunk ballroom get-up, an eyepatch and an owl perched on his shoulder. A film depicting exactly how a black man of such mysteriousness and eccentricity became an upstanding member of society in Victorian London would have been enormously fascinating. The production design also yields some picturesque sights, most notably in the ballet scene. Yet little of the film’s visual splendour is rooted in a personality it can call its own. The scene where Clara wonders into the enchanting forest of the snowflake realm could have been copied and pasted straight from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Mother Ginger’s lair and the cartoonish clowns that inhabit it look like something Tim Burton would design. The movie mostly feels like it was guided by a corporate obligation to assemble certain scenes in some mandated order and seldom feels like it’s trying to tell the story of itself. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie so lost in its search for an identity that it is only through the occasional recurrence of Tchaikovsky’s music that you’re reminded what it is you’re even watching.

★★

Bohemian Rhapsody

Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aiden Gillan, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Anthony McCarten


There’s a scene in the middle of Bohemian Rhapsody where the four members of Queen are pitching their latest album to a big-time music producer. They’ve all agreed that the lead single must be their poetic, operatic six-minute song entitled ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, but this big record label cheese isn’t going for it. It’s “not possible”, he says. The radio stations won’t play anything over three minutes. The song has too many weird words and sounds in it. This isn’t the kind of song that teenagers can bang their heads to at top volume in the car. It’ll never work! He entreats them to stick to the rock anthem formula that’s already worked for them, but Queen isn’t interested in formulas. They want to push boundaries, defy labels, and make music nobody has ever heard before. The buffoonish bigwig (played by famed ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ headbanger Mike Myers no less) refuses to budge and, as the bandmates storm out, he obnoxiously declares “Mark these words, no one will play Queen”.

While the scene itself is entirely fictional (the Ray Foster character that Myers plays was invented for the film), to dwell on that is to miss the point. This is a dramatization of a true story and liberties have to be taken. The purpose of this scene is to emphasise Queen’s nonconformity and artistic integrity. They will not allow themselves to be constrained by the rules, formulas and standards set by musically illiterate hacks and moneygrubbing executives. They’re in it for the music and they want to offer the audience something new, dynamic and unique. It’s an admirable mission statement made by an innovative band fronted by one of the greatest, most ingenious singers who ever lived. It’s why I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had even one tenth of the originality, fearlessness and spirit of its main character and the music he and the rest of Queen created. For a movie that so eagerly champions the notion of subverting expectations, breaking all the rules, and challenging the norm, Bohemian Rhapsody is so painfully generic, formulaic and predictable. If you’ve seen the parodic take that Walk Hard offered on films of this exact kind, its derivativeness becomes almost laughable.

It pains me to write this because I had high expectations for this film, not least because Queen was probably the greatest sing-along band of my childhood (the only other two that come close are The Beatles and ABBA). Yet it sticks to the weathered musical biopic template so rigidly that you half expect the movie’s version of Freddie Mercury (played by Rami Malek) to lose his sense of sight, suffer a childhood trauma that haunts him throughout his career, or go through a meltdown that involves breaking a nearby sink. The prescribed beats are all there; we meet a young, naïve singer with enormous, untapped talent who finds success and fame despite the scepticism of his disapproving family and then rises to superstardom before losing themselves in a cesspit of sex and drugs. In the end the singer hits rock bottom but is then inspired to seek and find redemption in the form of a triumphant comeback. None of this is done in service of telling a specific story with something meaningful to say about the singer and the life he lived; the emphasis is on hitting as many major life moments as they can while cramming in as many songs as possible. What you get is thus a Wikipedia article with a soundtrack. It tells you the who, what, when and wheres of Freddie’s life, but you won’t learn anything about him.

The reason for this is that Bohemian Rhapsody has little, if any, interest in the humanity behind the story. The movie instead concerns itself with minor details of little consequence such as which band member wrote which song, as if the real Brian May and Roger Taylor (played by Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy respectively) feel that their roles in the story won’t be fully appreciated unless it’s made clear to the audience that it wasn’t Freddie who wrote ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. While this movie does at least delve more into the musician’s creative process than other biopics tend to do, it still comes at the expense of any introspective explorations of character. Take Freddie Mercury’s ethnicity as an example. Freddie was born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar to Parsi parents, yet part of the reason this did not prove to be a barrier in his pursuit of rock and roll stardom is because he could pass for white. This angle has the makings of a potentially fascinating and culturally relevant story. Was Freddie’s ethnicity one of the reasons he felt like an outcast growing up and was it partly what inspired him to make music for other outcasts? Did passing for white stir up complicated feelings about his family, culture and identity? Does Rami Malek, an American actor of Egyptian descent, identify with these feelings on some level? Any viewer hoping that Bohemian Rhapsody will address these questions on any meaningful level will be left disappointed.

Another side of Freddie’s character that the movie at least attempts to address on a thoughtful level is his sexual orientation and the result is… problematic. I don’t think this is because the film’s PG-13 rating necessitated a less explicit exploration of his sex life, in fact a part of me likes the idea of a mainstream Hollywood movie in which an LGBT icon is celebrated as a legend being readily accessible to teenagers and children. The problem is that the film’s depiction of his sexuality is so backwards it feels like it could have been made in the 90s. For one thing the movie doesn’t allow Freddie to express his sexuality on his own terms. When he comes out as bisexual to his fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), which is exactly what he declared himself to be in real life, she replies “Freddie, you’re gay”. Having an LGBT man’s sexuality dictated to him by a heterosexual woman is one thing, but then the movie proceeds to portray his homosexuality as an actively destructive force in his life even after he embraces it. His most prominent relationship with another man is shared with the band’s manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), the most unambiguously villainous character in the film. It is he who gets the blame for Freddie’s debauchery as he supplies him with booze, drugs and groupies. He also manipulates Freddie into leaving Queen in order to pursue a career as a soloist because the film is loath to give its lead any significant amount of autonomy.

That the film had a messy production did it no favours. Even after losing their original attached star, Bohemian Rhapsody went on to lose its director Bryan Singer, who remains credited in the final film, amid a scandal in which he was accused of being a sexual predator. The movie feels embarrassingly chopped together in its finished form and contains several scenes edited within an inch of their lives with no direction other than to give every member of Queen an equal amount of screen time. Even then, however, there may not have been very much that stand-in director Dexter Fletcher could have done to save the film with what he had been left by Singer to work with. Even putting aside his reprehensible actions, Singer is probably the blandest director they could have chosen out of all the openly gay directors working in Hollywood. There is little that is distinctive in the way Bohemian Rhapsody is shot, except for the actual ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ sequence which recreates the image of the band shrouded in darkness from the music video while passages from the original negative reviews of the song flash on-screen as it grows into a phenomenon, and many of the scenes feel so generic in their inclusion (including a scene that’s helpfully captioned “Midwest USA”) that it feels like they were doing a colour-by-numbers biopic from the start. I can only dream what somebody like Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Lee Daniels, Jodie Foster or Ryan Murphy might have done with Freddie Mercury’s story.

Still, Bohemian Rhapsody is not without its good points. Its best quality by a mile and a half is Rami Malek’s performance as the champion himself. In the years since his death Freddie Mercury has evolved to become more myth than man and that is a difficult persona for any actor to imitate, never mind embody. What Malek does is far more than mere lip-syncing and dancing on a stage; he captures this electrifying, larger-than-life essence with a wicked air of flamboyance and a swaggering stance and walk that make you believe he could have been one of the great, demonstrative, hypersexual stars of glam rock along with David Bowie, Elton John and Prince. That Malek manages all of this while still channelling the deeper humanity beneath it all shows what an inspired casting choice he was and hints at the Freddie Mercury biopic that could have been. You get a sense of the man who was living this self-made persona even before he had an audience to perform for and who shows himself capable of both tremendous arrogance and narcissism and heartfelt affection and sincerity. It is a truly extraordinary performance deserving of an extraordinary film.

The movie is usually at its most sensational and superficial during the musical performances and nowhere is this more evident than the 1985 Live Aid sequence where Freddie reforms with Queen and delivers a knockout concert for the ages as if his life depended on it (which, the way the movie tells it, it kind of did). If there’s one thing that Bohemian Rhapsody gets absolutely right apart from Malek, it’s that a stunning, breathtaking finale can make an audience feel like the whole effort was worth it. Even if it rings hollow to those who happen to know that Freddie’s HIV diagnosis, which the movie uses as the justification for bringing Queen back together (even though they never actually broke up) for the concert, actually happened two years later, it’s still hard not to be completely swept away by Malek’s magnetic presence, the pulsating energy, and the sheer awesomeness of Queen’s music. That doesn’t make it any less superficial though. It’s a glorious moment for Freddie, but it isn’t a humanising one. Bohemian Rhapsody is nothing more than a greatest hits compilation that doesn’t even have a story to tell, never mind a statement of actual substance. What we got instead is a two star biopic entirely unworthy of the man it depicts or the music he created (and, truth be told, that second star is mostly for Malek).

★★

Halloween

Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner

Director: David Gordon Green

Writers: Jeff Fradley, Danny McBride, David Gordon Green


It’s been forty years since John Carpenter’s classic horror first took to the big screen and kickstarted the trend of teenage slashers that would lead to such fearful hits as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Since then the gory Hallow’s Eve saga has gone through so many sequels, spin-offs and reboots of such inconsistent quality that the continuity has long since lost all meaning and coherence. Thus Fradley, McBride and Green have gone the Jurassic World route by wiping the whole slate clean. Halloween is a direct sequel to Halloween (they probably could have gone with a slightly different title if only for the sake of practicality) and it picks up forty years after the events of the first film having retconned just about everything that happens in the successive titles. Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney) has been incarcerated in a mental institution ever since his killing spree in Haddonfield and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been preparing herself for the day that they’ll cross paths once again. As the 40th anniversary of that dreaded day approaches, Michael escapes his captivity and creeps his way to that same town to repeat the bloody cycle all over again.

One of the great debates surrounding the original Halloween film is the nature of Michael’s character; is he really this superhuman, innately evil bogeyman or is there a human being with thoughts and feelings somewhere deep inside? Is he nothing more than a bloodthirsty monster beyond any reason, conscience or understanding as Dr. Loomis said, or is there something beneath it all driving his compulsion to kill? Fans have tried to get to the heart of Michael’s humanity by searching for some kind of motivation behind his actions or some kind of link between him and the one character to survive his murderous rampage, Laurie Strode. The sequels shed some light on this with the reveal that Laurie is actually Michael’s younger sister and that she had been his target the whole time, a twist that Rob Zombie would then incorporate into his remake where he sought to provide the viewer with greater insight into who Michael was before he donned the William Shatner mask. However not only does this new film completely erase the continuity of the franchise, it even directly addresses this specific point and dismisses it on the outset. These incarnations of Michael and Laurie are not in any way blood relations, yet many of the characters are nonetheless determined to believe that there is an intrinsic bond between them.

Many of the reviews that I’ve read of this new film have billed it as essentially a revenge movie. Michael Myers has escaped once again! He’s going after Laurie to finish what he started! Except this time she’s waiting for him! That is how the movie was advertised and it’s certainly what I expected to see going in, but I’m not sure that’s the movie that Green and co. actually made. What I found most interesting about this film’s portrayal of Michael is how little bearing Laurie seems to have on his actions. When he and Laurie do inevitably face off at the end, it isn’t because he has sought her out but because factors beyond either of their control deliberately conspired to bring them together. Yet that doesn’t mean his actions are indiscriminate either. In the movie that first introduced us to Michael, there was a clear method behind his movements; he stalked his prey, which were specifically young women around the same age as the sister he brutally murdered in his very first scene, before moving in for the kill. When he returns to the town where it all began on that very same day, 31 October, the first place he visits is that same sister’s grave where a couple of the characters whom we’ve already met by this point have the misfortune of being when he catches sight of them. Afterwards he returns to his old pattern of hunting and murdering teenagers. There’s an enigma here but no plot twist to explain it all; it’s up to the viewer to find the answer for themselves.

From Laurie’s perspective there is no doubt in her mind that Michael is out for her and her loved ones. She already escaped him once and in the forty years since then she has been preparing for his return. “He’s waited for me” she says, “and I’ve waited for him”. This is personal for her, and what makes it all the more interesting for me is that she believes it’s personal for him as well in a way that it may not necessarily be. It’s strange but it might actually be more comforting for Laurie to believe that Michael has always had it out specifically for her than to consider that the bogeyman who killed her friends, traumatised her, and ruined her life did so for no other reason than because she was somebody of the wrong age and gender in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the great tragedies of life is to believe that you are special only to find out that you’re not and Laurie has already had a profoundly tragic life. She now lives as a recluse deep in the woods, twice divorced and estranged from her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), all because her PTSD has compelled her to devote her whole life, and that of her child, towards making preparations and honing the skills needed so that when Michael does return, he won’t find the same defenceless young girl waiting for him. “If the way I raised your mother means that she hates me but she’s prepared for the horrors of the world” she tells Allyson, “I can live with that”.

As far as the horror itself goes, Halloween takes most of its cues from its 1978 namesake. What made Carpenter’s original outing so effective was its simplicity; it’s long, drawn-out takes, its sparing use of sound and its ability to evoke brutal images without graphically depicting them (at least not as gratuitously as you might remember). Green takes a similar less-is-more approach and the result is quite good, even if he does tend to draw on moments from the first film a little too often. The problem there is that, while it makes perfectly logical sense to find inspiration in the techniques and imagery that made Halloween as successful as it was, those same methods and images have been so widely imitated in so many other films in the decades since that the 2018 Halloween too often feels like just another slasher film. The tension is there and Green shows enough restraint that his echoing of the preceding title never goes overboard, but he’s nonetheless still walking in the looming shadow cast by one of great, iconic titles in American horror cinema.

The moment when the film truly comes into its own is the third act where Laurie and Michael have their showdown. Laurie has gone through a totally remarkable transformation between the two films akin to Sarah Connor and Curtis nails it like the pro that she is. On its release it was noted by many that Halloween marks the largest opening for a film with a female lead above 55 years old and it is a strong and compelling one at that. Laurie is so much more than a tough heroine who shows up to kick arse and takes names; she is a fully formed character who after four decades is still trying to reckon with her trauma. When she comes face to face with Michael once again it isn’t some epic duel between old adversaries, it’s a fundamentally damaged person being confronted by the terrors of her past in the form of a ghost. By scrapping the familial bond between them, Laurie’s motivation becomes all the simpler and harsher as Michael’s becomes more inscrutable and tormenting. The most inspired images in this film are those where Laurie and Michael are framed as mirror images to one another and those were the moments that gave me the most unsettling chills.

I guess I didn’t find Halloween to be a particularly scary film, but I also think that dismissing it on that basis is kind of missing the point. I’ve never found the John Carpenter film to be especially scary either, in large part because I wasn’t even born until well over a decade after it was made, but that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the masterful way in which it crafts so much tension from such a simple concept in such an economical way. The new Halloween doesn’t get under my skin or shock me to my core the way that my favourite horror films tend to do, but I was still engrossed from beginning to end. Green proves himself to be a worthy disciple of Carpenter as he adeptly manages to construct that same eerie, uncanny air of disquieting suburban atmosphere (with a little bit of help from Carpenter’s signature score with that jarringly monotonous melody) to startling effect. It also understands that the ambiguous humanity of Michael Myers is a crucial part of what makes him scary; the more unknowable he is, the more we come to dread his deathly presence as the characters are faced with a force as intangible and pitiless as the Black Plague.

★★★★

First Man

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Josh Singer


It’s interesting that Neil Armstrong, one of the most celebrated names in modern history and the protagonist in the greatest feat of exploration and discovery the human race has ever achieved, had never received the cinematic treatment prior to this film. In NASA’s entire momentous campaign to put a man on the moon, the only two notable films to chronicle the astronauts’ stories are The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. The former thrived on the anxieties and uncertainties of the USA’s first steps in space exploration and the latter details the greatest disaster of their lunar expedition save only the Apollo 1 fire. This might say something about trepidation and calamity making for better drama than triumph or it might just have more to do with the famously private Armstrong not wanting his story to be dramatized during his lifetime. In either case, Chazelle and his team were faced with the same kind of dilemma James Cameron had when he made Titanic: how do you build drama and suspense out of a story to which the audience already knows the end?

For one thing, First Man sets its focus on depicting not how Armstrong got to the moon (which HBO already covered in their superb miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) but rather how it felt. Much of this accomplished through the use of the camera. Uncomfortable, shaky close-ups of people’s faces that drift in and out of focus have us feeling the palpable stress of each scene. Claustrophobic POV shots from within the crafts that our hero pilots have us feeling confined and disorientated as we, like David Bowie, experience the scary sensation of sitting in a tin can far above the world. Far from the grandiose Kubrickian wide shots that you normally get with space movies ranging from Star Wars to Gravity, First Man is made up of tight, turbulent sequences that all serve to provide the viewer with a first person perspective of space travel. When an astronaut goes to space, it isn’t the majestic, tranquil voyage we’ve been taught to expect; it is a chaotic, distressing and bloody dangerous affair (even if you know what you’re doing). To be an astronaut you must be either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. In fact, as far as this movie is concerned, there may not necessarily be that much of a difference.

That brings us to the star of the show, the handsome and stoic Neil Armstrong as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, perhaps the best actor in all of Hollywood when it comes to playing stoic, handsome men. He signs up for the Apollo programme not long after losing his two-year-old daughter to cancer, perhaps so that he might be distracted from his grief. It isn’t entirely clear because Neil is shown to be so withdrawn in his emotional expression that not even his wife Janet (Claire Foy) can tell what he’s really thinking. She is of course grieving as well and soon makes it abundantly clear that having an uncommunicative husband risking his life every day for a cagey organisation while she’s helplessly stuck at home does little to help. We also learn that she has good reason to be worried. The Apollo programme’s mission to get an American man onto the moon proves exhaustive in its rigorous training, the crushing failures as the Soviets maintain their lead in the space race, and the grave pressure hanging on their shoulders as the testing of NASA’s machinery leads to the deaths of many of their pilots.

Gosling delivers a powerfully introverted performance as Armstrong with what is perhaps the most intensely quiet piece of acting I’ve seen since Aden Young in Rectify. Some actors tend to think that being reserved means being inexpressive and soft-spoken, but that’s not what’s happening with Gosling. It isn’t that Neil is unfeeling, it’s that he bottles up his feelings so deeply that they barely get to see the light of day. This is a man who feels the pain of his tragic loss on a profoundly personal level but who lacks maybe the confidence, the ability or perhaps even the need to express himself outwardly to those who care about him. At first this might seem like a validation of the traditional Hollywood notion that the ideal male archetype is the strong, silent, emotionally suppressed type, especially as it becomes clear that his impassiveness is a part of what enables him to keep his cool in the pilot’s seat when all the red alarms are going off and catastrophe is imminent. However the film does also show that Neil’s emotional detachment is a serious weakness in his character when it comes to forming some basic human connection with his loved ones. Not only does his grief and stoicism make him incapable of frank, open displays of vulnerability and emotion, even when it comes to explaining to his son that he might not make it back home when they send him to the moon, but Neil is also shown to be downright resentful of those who seem happy with their lives.

This nuanced character study of such a reticent figure may come as a surprise to those who expected to see a celebratory, flag-waving epic. It’s clear that wasn’t quite the movie Chazelle and Singer were interested in making not only because of their acute focus on Armstrong’s personal grief and inner-conflict but also their willingness to acknowledge the human cost of the Apollo missions. Other key figures in NASA’s team include project chief Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and fellow astronauts Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and, if you know your history, you’ll know that not all of them lived to see Neil take that giant leap for mankind. Meanwhile, the movie shows us, other things were happening on the ground as some of the political and social upheavals of the 1960s are given their own occasional spotlights. One features a crowd of African-Americans gathered around singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) as he recites ‘Whitey on the Moon’, an ode to the racial inequalities that continue to plague his people while the white man is busy looking at the stars. While certainly a tremendously effective scene, it is sadly undermined by the disconnect between the themes it raises and Armstrong’s personal story, which is after all what the movie is really about and where its heart truly lies.

While the civil rights protests and the war in Vietnam continue, none of it seems to even register with Armstrong, never mind affect his actions and emotions. He’s too busy focusing on the task at hand and so, I suppose, is Chazelle. When it comes down to it everything is ultimately about getting Armstrong to the moon and anything that isn’t directly related to that one goal feels like an afterthought. The real story is taking place in the flight sequences, the Armstrong family woes that happen in between, and the climatic re-enactment of Apollo 11’s historic landing and it is these moments which make clear that First Man is more than anything else a tragic portrait of strong, stoic masculinity that nevertheless ends in triumph, or at the very least relief. So much of this movie is about putting the viewer in Neil’s shoes and it does that by fixing the camera squarely on him at almost all times, whether he’s in the cockpit of a shuttle trying to think his way through a crisis, in NASA meetings taking in the mission details, at home arguing with his wife or at some uncomfortably fancy party inadequately trying to schmooze a senator so that congress doesn’t pull the plug on the Apollo missions. The movie stays with Neil for so long in such a constant way that by the end you do feel like you’ve lived his life and understand what it took for him to get to the moon and make that momentous first step.

Where First Man shines brightest is during those flight scenes where you almost instinctually find yourself clinging to your seat for dear life. Chazelle has a great eye for visceral filmmaking, as he proved in Whiplash where he showed that a drum solo could be an intense life or death struggle, and those scenes where Neil is piloting a craft feel like being trapped on a roller coaster designed by Willy Wonka. Through painfully prolonged and turbulently erratic takes and ingenious use of sound, this movie manages to orchestrate some truly spectacular, vertigo-inducing sequences that rival the scale and dynamism of what Cuarón did with Gravity. For all its faults when it comes to portraying the historic period and some of the characters (most of whom, including Janet Armstrong, are pretty underwritten) in a constructive way, the movie deserves to be praised all the same for Chazelle’s kinetic direction and Gosling’s layered performance. The way that movie is able to build such a powerful portrait of such an introverted man with minimal reliance of dialogue couple with the physical experience of actually watching the film is worth the price of admittance.

★★★★