“First Man” full film review

A solidly good film eclipsed by a star that was born last week. While there have been many movies and documentaries about the space race of the mid 20th century, including the amazing Hidden Figures, this is the first film to truly take us behind NASA and into the very home of the American hero astronaut Neil Armstrong. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not just another film that tells the story of earth to the moon using familiar events, characters, or archival footage, but instead, it takes us behind the headlines to vicariously experience what it was like for Niel and his family on this and other dangerous missions. This is not a film about the US Apollo mission to the moon nor is it about how NASA had to push through major public negative criticism of its money-sucking endeavors; it is about the hero’s journey. And our hero is Neil Armstrong. As I do not want to spend time on that ridiculous flag controversy, I will summarize that element of the film. The flag IS there at the landing site and there are plenty of flags and references to the United Staes in the film–there–moving on. When it comes to a Chazelle film, I expect a strong screenplay to serve as the foundation upon which the visual elements are build. Unfortunately, Chazelle did not write this film and it shows. It suffers from a weak screenplay that has repercussions felt through the movie. Some critics have been writing about the strong emotional tug in the movie, but I did not feel it. I also feel that Gosling was not at the top of his game, compared to past performances. First Man is all around good, and I hope for nominations for it! It’s just not as strong as I had hoped the next Chazelle film would be. Compared to A Star is BornFirst Man is not as strong and I imagine the popularity of this week’s Halloween will also cast a shadow on this riveting story.

Before Neil Armstrong uttered his now famous words when he stepped foot on the moon, he first had get there. But he had to endure a lot more than just training for the Gemini and Apollo missions in order to be the first man on the moon. More than previous films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 also about critical space missions, this one practically places you in the cockpit for a first person journey from earth to the moon. You will be taken back by the sheer number of personal and professional tragedies to befall Armstrong; and furthermore, you’ll feel the vibrations of the rocket, the out of control spinning, and the moments where you are on the cliff facing death. Follow Neil and his family on this turbulent drama that takes the fascination with and mind-blowing nature of the cockpit and turn it into an image and confinement to dread for it feels more like a death trap than the bridge of forging a new frontier.

This is a drama, not an action movie. So if you are searching for a space adventure, then this is not a film for you. But if you want to learn more about the first man on the moon, what he went through personally and professionally and feel what he felt, then this is a film for you. Incredible opening scene! Hitchcock once stated that a writer or director needs to drop the audience into the middle of the action in order to instantly hook them into the story. One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting is to start each scene as close to the end of the scene as possible in order to write leanly and effectively. That is precisely what awaits you at the beginning of First Man. No ramping up to conflict here; you are in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong as he is testing an aircraft when the ship begins to drift closer to space instead of returning to the ground. This opening scene is one of the most incredible ones that I have seen in a long time. Heart pounding. Demonstrating his mastery of visual storytelling, Chazelle crafts an opening scene that thrusts you into a gritty, visceral journey that will leave you breathless. As intense as this scene is, there are man others in the film that will place you at the brink of death and destruction in an effort to puncture a hole into what is possible with the fledgling space program.

On the heels of that incredibly intense scene, Chazelle takes us to a hospital where Neil daughter Karen is undergoing radiation therapy for her tumor. In an attempt to channel Pixar-like storytelling for the opening of a film, we quickly follow the family from the hospital to a funeral for a fellow pilot, at which his daughter is playing, to Neil battling insurance companies and doctors over the phone to an intimate father-daughter moment to lowering Karen’s casket in the ground. As emotional as this opening sequence is, it falls short of where it needed to be in order to truly evoke the strong emotion for which the film was going. Compared to watching A Star is Born the week prior, I was not feeling as strong an emotional connection to these characters to justify how I was supposed to feel after these scenes. Audiences were not given sufficient time to connect with the characters in order to feel the heartache intended to be felt during and after the funeral. It was sad for sure, but not devastating. That being said, it is entirely possible that audience members who have children may have felt the heart-wrenching moment differently because of knowing what it’s like to have a child. It is evident that Chazelle did not write this film because the screenplay is on the weaker side. Now, I am not suggesting the story is weak compared to most films. On the contrary, it is much stronger than many other films; however, compared to what I expect from Chazelle, it is weaker than Whiplash and La La Land.

The screenplay contains three stories. The A story is Neil Armstrong’s personal journey, the B story is Neil’s relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and the C story is his career at NASA. There is clearly a desperate attempt to link the tragedy of Neil’s daughter to his hell-bent nature to constantly take himself close to death, putting his family and marriage under immense strain. With the tragedy of Karen not sufficiently setup and rushed through, it is hard to connect it to the rest of the movie. The film wants audiences to believe that dangerous missions are Neil’s coping mechanisms to deal with the death of his daughter, but there just isn’t enough evidence in the film support that. I see Chazelle’s desire to link Karen’s death to Neil’s desire to put himself and his family in physiological and emotional harm’s way. In terms of the character development of Neil, the stoic behavior, monosyllabic responses, countless moments of silence, and machismo become repetitive and boring. Although he certainly battles inner demons and real-world obstacles in order to eventually reach the moon, I don’t witness inner character development throughout the screenplay. Neil, at the end of the story, is pretty much the same Neil we meet at the beginning. While we are witness to the strife in his marriage to Janet, that relationship goes no where as well. There is simply no character arc or growth in this film. And that is what hinders this screenplay from being great.

Perhaps the film was built upon a weak screenplay, but there is quite a lot to like about it! Much like Interstellar was showered with nominations and wins in the technical categories, First Man will likely also see nominations for score, sound, editing, cinematography and more. From a technical achievement perspective, this film is incredible to behold. If you have the opportunity to watch the film in IMAX, then that is definitely what you want to do for the full, immersive experience. When you cannot pick out the score, that is often the park of a brilliantly diegetic score that seamlessly integrates into the film. There is a highly emotional component to the score that enhances the screenplay and picks up where the screenplay felt off in order to evoke that emotional response. I absolutely loved the cinematography. Much like the score, the cinematography felt so incredibly natural, so organic. Whether the camera is providing me with a subjective or objective POV, it frames each shot perfectly to communicate the tension and suspense. All around, Chazelle takes all the elements (except the screenplay) of the film and combines them for a solidly good film.

Some quick notes on the performances, I found that Gosling delivered an above average performance. And that’s above average for him, not compared to the litany of other actors. Obviously, compared to other actors, he is at the top of his game. But I feel that he is stronger in La La Land. And the reason for this performance that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me can be traced back to the screenplay. I’ve no doubt that he will be nominated–and he should–but I’ve little confidence that he will win. Claire Foy’s performance of as Janet Armstrong is fantastic! She will most likely also see a nomination for her role as the wife of the first man on the moon. She was incredibly strong, determined, and loyal. She demonstrates a stronger character growth arc than Gosling. The screenplay appears to have developed her character more effectively than his. Compared to the other performances in the film, hers is the most standout.

Definitely see this film. Just because it suffers from a weak screenplay does not mean that it doesn’t have a lot of offer. I greatly appreciate this film for taking us on an intimate journey with the Armstrong family. This is a story that has not been told on screen before and truly shows us the personal and professional links that Neil Armstrong went to in order to stand on the moon and announce to the world “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“La La Land” movie review

lalalandSimply dazzling! A beautifully produced motion picture musical that is sure to delight audiences around the world. Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia) shine brightly in this self-reflexive modern romantic film set on the backdrop of a classically composed movie musical echoing the song and dance numbers that Busby Berkeley brought to the silver screen through Hollywood studio system powerhouse Warner Bros. Summit Entertainment’s La La Land will have you laughing one moment and crying the next in this roller coaster of emotions. Every aspiring professional who has the dream of a substantive career as an artist in the visual and performing arts–or just an artist in general–needs to watch this film. If you have ever been discouraged on your career path, or lack thereof, this film will aid in reigniting the flame that fuels your dreams of writing, acting, playing, or whatever your passion happens to be. Whereas many films similar to this one would have shot it as a period OR modern piece, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece that harnesses the nostalgic appeal of the classic musical with the power of modern cinematic storytelling.

Stories of struggling to reach your dreams are nothing new, but there is so much more to the story of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian’s (Gosling) respective goals of successful careers in the city of angels. Following a chance meeting at a night club in LA where Sebastian was playing a set list of traditional Christmas carols, Mia and Sebastian continue to bump into each other at parties and in the work place. The focus of this musical is on the everyday life of two struggling artists trying to make it in a city notorious for shattering dreams and breaking hearts. Mia and Sebastian must learn what is more important: chasing dreams of being in the spotlight or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a beautiful love unmatched by any other.

Best part about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land? The old-school movie musical feel from the moment the film opens. From set pieces to matte paintings to the manner in which the cameras capture the story as the drama unfolds, this is both a modern story of romance and conflict and classic Hollywood musical. While some may find the cinematography, lighting, and editing to be nothing remarkable, the fact of the matter is that it required great skill and hundreds of hours of effort to capture the essence of an old Hollywood musical. To recreate a nearly extinct film genre, is an outstanding achievement in cinematic storytelling and deserves all the 9s and 10s this film is receiving from critics and fans alike. La La Land takes pages right out of the books of Busby Berkeley (Footlight Parade) and Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain). Such a gorgeous combination of a classically structured and choreographed musical within a modern Hollywood. And the film could have easily rested its laurels on the technical and artistic achievements alone, but the film also possesses an incredibly beautiful love story between two aspiring artists.

In a modern studio system who appears all too often to be more concerned with franchise building, merchandising, theme park integration, and rebooting, this film is fresh, real, gritty, and endearing. In a climate so predisposed to the Star WarsesHarry PottersJurassic Parks, and Avengerses, this film brings with is a breath of fresh air that is nearly unmatched by any other film this year. While many are concerned with the lack of original stories coming out of Hollywood, may this film be a testament that masterpieces can still make their way into cinemas nationwide and not simply the art house theatre of the US’ largest metro areas. Although film is a visual medium and should not rely upon the score or songs to carry the bulk of the film (i.e. Frozen), this film is very much about the music. However, unlike films that integrate music in order to cover up poorly structured and developed writing, La La Land embraces the music as much a part of the story as the writing itself. In many ways, the film plays out like music and flows like a musical score. The way the cameras moves, the editor cut, and the blocking of the characters is very much like a musical staff, like the way music is composed and performed. But at the same time, the movie is not simply about the music but about the relationship between Mia and Sebastian; and furthermore, about their aspirations for the spotlight. Solid writing and a solid score.

The casting of La La Land could not have been more brilliant! Both Stone and Gosling successfully bring about that 1940s feel in a modern story. That could be due to the successes of both in 1940s era films prior. Stone in Magic in the Moonlight and Gosling in The Notebook. While both can successfully carry a period piece on their own respectively, together they are a powerhouse couple like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their performances in this film were so incredibly natural, so real, and believable. At the same time, the actors are also very much contemporary–just like the film: classic yet contemporary. Even though the audience is well aware that Stone and Gosling are anything but struggling artists, they play their respective parts so convincingly that you’d swear that we were actually watching a pair of struggling artists who do desperately want a substantive piece of that Hollywood pie. A great screenplay possesses protagonists that the audience will love or love to hate, and the characters in La La Land connect so incredibly well with classic and contemporary audiences.

Inspirational. This film will help to inspire those who have a talent for storytelling, music, or writing to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to one’s craft because that is the only way that a career can pay off. The moment you stop trying is the moment that the dream dies along with settling for less. Not that day-jobs aren’t important. Certainly the importance of a day job is shown in the film, but it’s imperative that the day job never cause an artist to sell out or give up on the dream. Day jobs should fund imaginative dreams not eclipse them. There is much to love about this film; so much so that you will likely find yourself with a desire to watch it again. This IS definitely my pick for Best Picture as we head into award season with the holidays coming to a close.