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.

★★★★

Advertisements

The Post

Cast: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer


Although it tells the story of an event that occurred over four decades ago, The Post was made very much with today’s political climate in mind. In this day and age where the President of the United States has embarked on a campaign to undermine and antagonise the media and to render the very concept of ‘truth’ irrelevant, Spielberg set out to make this film in order to illustrate the vital role that a free press plays in a democratic society. Through this story, The Post champions journalistic integrity and free speech and demonstrates the necessity of a free press to hold those in public office accountable for their actions. Its weakness is that it can feel a little on-the-nose and self-important at times. The pressure and perhaps even obligation the crew felt to make a statement is very apparent, and as a result the movie often feels more like a commentary then it does a movie. It says the right things, but not with as much feeling as I would have liked.

The Post tells the story behind the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of documents detailing the government’s secret intention to enter what they knew would be an unwinnable war in Vietnam and the truth of the disastrous progress made in the years since. Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), a disillusioned military analyst, leaks these documents to The New York Times who immediately begin reporting on the contents. When the courts rule that the Times must cease their reporting, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) of The Washington Post tracks down Ellsberg and gains access to the Papers. His editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) wants to run the story despite the court ruling, but the Post’s publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) is worried that doing so will lead the company to ruin. It also doesn’t help that one of the figures revealed as one of the perpetrators of the great deception is her close friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the Secretary of Defence under the Johnson administration. It is up to Kay to decide whether to back down and ensure the safety of her paper and employees, or to stand up for the freedom of the press and publish the government’s secrets.

For the roles of Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee, Spielberg could not have picked two more beloved stars if he tried. Both Streep and Hanks are paragons of liberal Hollywood and are the perfect pair to deliver an idealistic appeal for truth, duty, and liberty. Streep comes into her own as the beleaguered Kay, the publisher of the Post who struggles to reconcile her concern for her friends and her company with her responsibility to the readers of the paper and who faces pressure from the patriarchal board that doesn’t believe her capable of doing a man’s job. She brings a quiet dignity to the character as she tries to make her critical choice pragmatically, knowing full well what others expect from her and what the consequences will be should things go badly. As far as Bradlee is concerned there is no question about publishing and Hanks plays him with grit and gravity. He believes more strongly than anyone that what they do is vital to the country whatever the price, but the film grounds him just enough so that his ideals don’t come across as naiveté. He understands full well the ramifications of what they have discovered and it takes as much of a toll on him as it does anybody, but nonetheless it is still too important to be kept secret from the public.

The Post can be a chore to sit through at times. The film is sometimes so self-indulgent in the way that Aaron Sorkin can sometimes be, so certain in its own rightness and in the absolute truth of its rhetoric, that some scenes almost feel preachy and pretentious. However, whenever the movie feels like it will become too ostentatious, it is saved by the talent of the cast and crew. Spielberg has a talent for storytelling that few other directors possess and the fluidity and focus he displays here is on par with All the President’s Men and Spotlight. His expertise in creating engaging narratives comes through and he is able to make the story feel cinematic in a non-distracting way through subtle uses of the camera and sound. The long take during Streep and Hanks’ first scene together, for example, invites us to pay more attention to the dynamic between the two than a simple back-and-forth would have done. He is aided in his tight storytelling by a superb ensemble, including the likes of Carrie Coon, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, and Michael Stuhlbarg, who make every second count in their strong, concise performances.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that the attention The Post has received can be credited more to the timeliness of its message than to its individual merits, but that doesn’t mean the attention is undeserved. Although it’ll be interesting to see whether the film will remain relevant or even regarded ten years from now, that’s not for anybody to say today. We can only judge a film as it stands in the present and, at this time, The Post demands a place in the public conversation. The story it tells was made to reflect on this modern age of ‘Fake News’ and it is intended as a direct response to the attacks on the American news media over the past year. The fact that the story it tells reflects so strongly on the world as it is today nearly fifty years afters its occurrence shows that the questions it raises are far from settled. Personally I would have liked this film to speak of the world today with a little more force and bite and to have left a more lasting impression, but if The Post is fated to be remembered as a film of its moment, then it certainly chose the right moment.

★★★★

Spotlight

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci

Director: Tom McCarthy

Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer


It is tough for me to review a film like Spotlight because, as I look back at it, I’m forced to ask myself whether my feelings towards it were inspired by its subject matter or by the film itself. When a film tackles a controversial subject of this importance it can be tricky to work out whether you really do like the film or if you only think you like it because you feel like you are supposed to. There is no doubt that Spotlight has an important story to tell, the question is whether or not it stands out as a film. When I compared it to some of the year’s other releases I realised that Spotlight is not actually that remarkable in terms of filmmaking. It doesn’t have the energy of Steve Jobs, the creativity of The Big Short or the atmosphere of Bridge of Spies. And yet I got a stronger reaction from watching Spotlight than I did from any of those three films. I think this has less to do with the subject matter though and more to do with the story, characters and dialogue.

The film is set in 2001 and tells the true story of the reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the child molestation scandal. The head of the Spotlight team conducting the investigation is Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), a veteran reporter on friendly terms with some of the most influential Catholics in Boston. The members of his team include Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), all of whom are deeply affected by this story for their own personal reasons. Overlooking this investigation is the new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) and long-time Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). Between them the Spotlight team discover that the instances of child molestation carried out by Catholic priests extends far beyond a few bad apples and start to suspect that the men at the very top could very well be aware of what’s happening and are even enabling it.

Although the directing in this film is not particularly creative or innovative (and certainly not worthy of an Oscar nomination), I think that Spotlight is a showcase of how great writing can make a great film. The construction of the film’s narrative is so methodical and intricate that there isn’t a single faulty step in its telling. Every scene and every conversation that takes place is employed to progress the story and does so fluidly and captivatingly. Even though the subject of the film is complex and challenging, the story itself is straightforward and upfront. The film gets straight to the point and goes exactly where it needs to go. The viewer is able to become invested through the characters as they uncover this conspiracy piece by piece and are all personally affected by what they discover. There is a directness and matter-of-factness to the film’s approach that makes it all feel downright and true and therefore honest. The drama is never overplayed and is never exaggerated. Through smooth pacing and subtlety the film allows its story to play out naturally and every moment of drama that does occur is completely earned.

Spotlight could also very well have the best ensemble of the year. There isn’t an individual that I can single out because the strength of their performances is that they work best as a collective. If I had to pick out a favourite though it would probably have to be Stanley Tucci as the tired yet dedicated lawyer who has seen too many injustices and empty promises in his time. Each character in this film is fully rounded and are all challenged by what they uncover. Robinson is a born-and-bred Boston man who discovers that he didn’t know his city or its people as well as he thought he did. Rezendes is horrified by the corruption of an institution he believed to be good and just. Pfeiffer is deeply affected by the trauma of the victims and the impenitence of the offenders. Carroll is a family man who cannot help but wonder whether he can keep his own children safe. The actors play their roles so authentically and candidly that they completely disappear into their characters.

It is tough to set aside a story’s social relevance and to assess a film like this purely as a film. I know that the film had a profound affect on me. The question is whether this is because I was already worked up by the film’s notorious subject matter or because I was moved by the film’s story. On reflection I think I have to side with the film. As I played it over in my head there was one particular sequence that stuck with me which involved a children’s choir singing ‘Silent Night’. After everything that had come before, that particular scene struck me like a hammer. After all of the corruption, tragedy and depravity that had been uncovered, the film chose to drive it all home by contrasting it with an image of what had been lost in the middle of it all. It was an image of such heartbreaking innocence that I couldn’t help but be moved. Spotlight is such a slow-burner that it captivates you without you even realising it. It is a marvellously written film with an excellent ensemble and an emotional and powerful payoff that is well worth the wait.

★★★★★