“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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“Hidden Figures” movie review

hiddenfiguresAn absolutely out-of-this-world biographical film! 20th Century Fox, PepsiCo, and TSG Entertainment present Theodore Melfi’s incredible film depicting the lives and careers of three African-American women whose work was extremely influential in the early days of NASA’s Mercury, Atlas, and Apollo missions. In all likelihood, there may not have been successful launches, orbits, and landings if it weren’t for these brave women who refused to back down and take the back seat to white men and women at a time that even government buildings still segregated restrooms, water fountains, and “community” coffee pots. Every once in a while, there is a biographical drama that packs a powerful socio-political message within a simple but brilliant story that is told incredibly successfully. Hidden Figures is a film that should have been released many years ago. How stories like this one go untold, is bewildering. Between the powerful performances, excellent writing, meticulous direction, and fantastic score, this is definitely a film to catch in theaters this weekend. Although Hidden Figures has been on a limited release since December, it receives its nationwide release this weekend and one to watch for when Oscar nominations are released.

Hidden Figures is the story of three absolutely brilliant African-American women who served as the problem-solving geniuses behind some of NASA’s greatest space operations in all of history including John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) first earth orbit and Alan Shepherd’s symbolic penetration of earth’s atmosphere into space. Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) work as computers (the term used at the time before the conventional modern use) at NASA’s Langley facility near Washington D.C. Never assigned to a permanent position, these talented ladies work tirelessly to support NASA’s operations and aspirations of space exploration. At a time in which it was incredibly difficult for persons of color–much less women–to climb out of temporary and entry-level jobs, these women do not permit archaic societal norms to stop them from reaching their greatest potential as an engineer, programmer, and mathematician respectively. This untold story will move you as these three women, that society and NASA determined could not be more than computers, are significantly instrumental in launching the space program that indirectly united people from all over the world and cemented the U.S. as a then-leader in space exploration.

What a story! And the best part about it is that it is based on actual events and three real women who are responsible for the success of NASA’s early space programs and even help to launch some of the more contemporary missions. Unlike many biographical dramas, there is a comprehensive nature to this film as it contains two important stories. There is the foreground story featuring the women at the center of the movie, but there is also the story of the state of the U.S.’ domestic socio-political policies at a time of civil rights unrest–especially in places like Virginia. Both stories parallel one another and serve to pack a powerful punch. After watching this film, it is clear that this film wishes it had existed in the 1960s. Within the former story, the focus is primarily on the life and career of Katherine Goble followed by Dorothy Vaughn, and to a lesser extent, Mary Jackson. Each woman specializes in a different STEM (as it is now commonly referred) area. Katherine is a mathematical genius matched by none, Dorothy understands early computer language better than anyone at NASA, and Mary is an aspiring engineer with a brilliant mind for aerospace design. The latter story, underscoring the socio-political civil rights unrest, is certainly highlighted in the film but never takes the focus completely off the story in the foreground; however, is vitally important to this powerful story with a message that those who you least expect to rise to be leaders in their respective fields, can and will! Despite all the challenges coming from within the work place and the country itself, these three women prove that you should never be afraid to be the best. Being good, isn’t good enough. Be the best!

Although this is truly a powerful film with a beautiful message that is just as relevant today as it would have been 50 years ago, it never quite hits the mark that I had hoped it would and perhaps that is due to the PG rating. Suffice it to say, there are some remarkable scenes with powerful speeches, but the film is just shy of the level of intensely as it should have contained. I realize that some of what transpired in the Space Task room, wind tunnels, and courtroom may have been taken from transcripts for authenticity, as this is a movie, I feel that there should have been more of a dramatic license taken out to increase the emotional impact of the film. It certainly has a moderately high emotional impact, but there was definitely the potential to take it up several more degrees. Two scenes come to mind. (1) Katherine challenging the segregation policies at NASA as it relates to common comforts such as restrooms and coffee and (2) Mary petitioning the court to permit her enrollment for graduate level engineering classes held at an all-white school. Dorothy also has a couple of encounters with her superior (Kirsten Dunst) but they are more subtle–no less powerful and important to the film. In regards to the scene in which Katherine confronts Mr. Harrison, the scene feels a little cut short of where it should have ended and Mr. Harrison’s (Kevin Costner) response could have been more dramatic. When inside the courtroom as Mary was addressing the judge, this would have been the perfect time for a speech that would have brought a flood of tears to the eyes, but it stops short of where it could have gone too. Over all, the screenplay is excellently written. These are just two areas that I feel could have struck a more powerful emotional cord. As it is, these scenes are still some of the most brilliant in the film and leave an impact.

One of Mr. Harrison’s lines in the film contains a large degree of irony. The line was something to the effect of “How can the U.S. government justify NASA when it is consistently unable to get into and explore space?” The irony therein is seen in today’s defunding of NASA for, essentially, that very concept. NASA did not lose the bulk of its government funding due to any particular presidential administration but from remaining in the 80s and never launching into the 21st century. After the Space Shuttle program, NASA did very little to grow–its technology and engineering remained fairly stagnant. Sure, communication technologies greatly benefited from NASA engineers, but that is not what made NASA an exciting organization from the 60s thru the 90s. What made NASA great was the perception of being explorers–exploration excited a society! Once NASA no longer appeared to be focused on exploration and shifted its focus to communication technologies, it lost that public support that was such a part of what brought so many people together. In many ways, the perceptions and issues facing NASA prior to and during the early missions is plaguing it today. Instead of an inability to launch a man into space and orbit the earth (later to land on the moon), there is now the demonstrable evidence and perception that NASA has an inability to create manned vessels capable of exploring space. Satellites and camera are great, but nothing parallels the actual exploration of space by humans. If NASA could one again be seen as explorers, then perhaps a new generation would petition the government to once again proactively support the iconic organization.

Hidden Figures is definitely not to be missed while it is in theaters. It is a larger than life story that is best appreciated on the big screen. For those in the audience who remember the early days of NASA, there is plenty of vintage footage to accompany the modern cinematic storytelling in this film. Even Kennedy’s famous “we will go to the moon” speech is in this movie. More than a biography of the glory days of NASA, this is a story of three women who, against all odds, rose to the challenges they faced on a daily basis to prove that women are capable of anything that a man can do. Between breaking the sound barrier, gravitational pull, and paving the way for equal rights and treatment in the workplace, this film will hit close to home for many who know what it is like to feel oppressed for who they are.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“The Martian” movie review

TheMartianHouston, we have a problem…with Ridley Scott’s directing. Despite the fact that his is an extremely well-known name among directors and both “Alien” and “Gladiator” are critically acclaimed films, Scott just keeps proving over and over again that he can create a very visual movie with a star-studded cast; but, his films over the last decade have just not held up to the hype behind his name or the caliber of director he used to be. The Martian is a prime example of when junior executives at motion picture studios decide that a given plot/sub-genre is popular and keep cranking them out. The problem is, by the time the studios pick up on what the public wants, when the next copycat film gets released, often times the public is tired of that kind of movie. This makes the third epic space movie in three years. Pretty sure both Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain just used their same costumes from Interstellar. One thing’s for sure, if NASA was looking for a film to showcase their brand in an indirect effort to increase funding and rally support for the essentially mission-less organization, this may not have been the best one. In many ways, it just showcased their bureaucracy and inefficiency. Perhaps, space travel should be mostly conducted by private organizations with some infrastructural support on the federal level.

The Martian is about rescuing Mark Watney (Damon) a stranded astronaut-botonist on Mars after a research expedition was abruptly cut short due to an unforeseen storm. The Mars research team, led by Commander Lewis (Chastain), heads back to earth on not knowing that the comrade they thought dead was now completely abandoned on the red planet. Following some minor self-surgery, Watney realizes that he will have to learn to survive on Mars until he can be rescued by growing his own food and repairing the communication technologies in order to make contact with NASA. After NASA discovers the Watney is alive and in reasonably good condition, they must mount an effort to deliver supplies and get him home. Following some failed attempts, NASA eventually teams up with the most unlikely of players in the space game as a collaborative effort to work together for the greater good.

Now I know what you may be saying, ‘this guy doesn’t like most high concept, popular movies.’ That is definitely not the case at all. However, I feel that high concept films often suffer from under-developed plots and poorly executed directing. Just because you have a handful of hits such as AlienBlade Runner, and Gladiator, doesn’t mean that you should be given a pass for all subsequent films. That’s what I and other critics have noticed with his theatrical releases over the last decade. I just don’t think movie-going audiences needed another space movie after Gravity and Interstellar. Certainly not a film about a rescue mission or one with two of the same actors in similar roles from last year. The Martian is definitely beautifully shot, and that is of no surprise, since Scott’s films are often filled with stunning cinematography and production design. If only the actors were just as exemplary in their respective roles. Most of the more prominent roles were just under-developed. Don’t highlight a particular character if there is no real reason for the special attention.

Although you may be thinking that I didn’t like this movie at all, you would be mistaken to rush to that conclusion. In fact, there are definitely a few reasons why I liked certain elements of the film. I thoroughly enjoyed the commitment to real science in this science-fiction story. That was my biggest negative criticism of the plot of Interstellar. In the plot of the aforementioned, we were asked to constantly engage in the suspension of disbelief and blindly accept scientific information that was never explained or even made logical sense within the world of the film. Fortunately, The Martian played out as a believable film that is taking place not that far into our future. Throughout the film, the science is explained in carefully crafted exposition that is seamlessly integrated into the plot. Never does it feel that we are to blindly accept some science or logic just for the sake of moving the plot along. The believability of the plot and production design is what helps this film succeed as a good example of a science-fiction theatrical release.

As we gear up for Oscar season, I hope that this isn’t what we are to expect: movies that have many great elements paired with poor direction overall. If for no other reason, The Martian shows us how we could colonize Mars and travel back and forth. Although his performance wasn’t stellar, Damon pretty much holds the audience’s attention through the use of comedic relief during some of the most stressful times in the movie. For the aeronautical and and jet propulsion communities, this is a good example of research and development in the area of space exploration.

Tomorrowland (movie review)

TomorrowlandYou love visiting Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom, now experience it in a whole new way in Disney’s Tomorrowland! If you have yet to see the movie, definitely watch it in IMAX. This refreshingly (mostly) original movie is a pleasant change of pace from the countless reboots and remakes out there. As a researcher into the convergence of cinema and theme parks (my thesis will be published soon), this movie is of particular interest to me because of how it translates the theme park land into a narrative film. Often we see the opposite: a theme park experience being inspired by or based on a movie. This movie is well paced, developed, and produced. Ordinarily, I receive much flack for how hard I can be on Disney. That’s because when you profess to be the best, you need to consistently deliver a quality product, and acknowledge the criticism both positive and negative. However, this is one Disney review that I am particularly excited to write because I truly enjoyed the movie immensely, and could see a glimpse of the classic Disney style that the brand and studio still bank on (but not necessarily still deliver) today.

Tomorrowland takes you from present day Cape Canaveral, Florida to a land that is bustling with dreams, ingenuity, and talent. Follow young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) as his trip to the 1964 New York City World’s Fair becomes much more than he could have ever anticipated. It’s there he meets a young lady named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) who shows him the futuristic city of Tomorrowland. Speeding up to present day, meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) who is doing everything in her power to thwart the demolition of the Kennedy Space Center NASA launch platform in order to save her dreams and her dad’s job. Through a series of unfortunate events, Casey comes into possession of a pin that shows her the world of Tomorrowland. Inspired by the glimpse of the city, Casey is determined to find out more about the mysterious pin. Only, Casey could never have dreamed about what this chance finding of the pin would mean; and furthermore, she could never have imagined the adventure she is about to find herself on to save the future of her world and Tomorrowland.

From the time the theme song “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” from Disney Carousel of Progress, located in present day Tomorrowland at Magic Kingdom, begins to play, you know right then and there that this movie will capture your imagination. For fans of and frequent visitors to either the park in Florida or the original in California, you will find many Easter Eggs (film jargon for references to other movies, books, theme park attractions, etc) from the Disney parks. Experience It’s a Small World right there in the movie theatre; and during the sweeping shots and panoramic views of Tomorrowland, see Space Mountain and a upgraded People Mover. Even some of the weapons are based on the ones used on the Buzz Lightyear attraction. If you have been on the People Mover ride, you will recognize that the design of Tomorrowland bears some resemblance to the model seen on the iconic attraction that is said to be the inspiration for EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Taking the existing attractions in the theme park land Tomorrowland and translating them into the diegesis of the movie Tomorrowland was done incredibly well and I feel Walt would be proud of this grand example of the convergence of two entertaining mediums.

Even though here are obviously similarities in the plot to other movies that carry along them theme “if humanity doesn’t change, it will mean the utter destruction of the world in acute and violent ways,” there is enough original content and development that it will not feel like another doomsday movie with the ticking-time-bomb plot device. The movie focusses on two characters and then their paths merge with one another. If you were to envision the movie as a road, think of it as two separate roads merging into one. I would even venture to say that there is a little of the 1980s classic The Neverending Story in this modern tale of dreams, destruction, change, and the future. Despite how easy it would have been for the writers to have greatly emphasized the socio-political context of much of the movie, the socio-political themes are mostly subtle and the film doesn’t feel like propaganda (much in the same way Avatar certainly did). When a movie essentially has two protagonists, it can become problematic for the writers and director, because fully executing thorough character development, grows increasingly difficult in the storytelling process (like trying to 100% focus on two things at the same time–it seldom happens). But, both the characters of young and adult Frank Walker (George Clooney) and Casey are handled very well respectively and both have unique character arcs.

Although the obvious CGI integration was sometimes a little too much, and I would have preferred practical set designs and special effects, both the “real” and the computer generated facets to the films production design were well-crafted and used effectively in the narrative. Sometimes in movies designed to be best-viewed in IMAX, the studios will play to the screen size, so to speak, even if it’s breaking away from the authenticity and very essence of the movie. No so, with Tomorrowland. The movie uses the IMAX technology as a storytelling tool, not merely a spectacle. Unlike many movies I have seen in the last couple of years, this one has well-defined central characters, with clearly established external goals, well-developed internal goals, and clearly defined opposition to those goals by way of the antagonist Nix (Hugh Laurie) and to a lesser extent, time itself. It has everything a wonderful movie needs to have in order to make the most of an exemplary narrative and excellent entertainment value.

If you are looking for a movie to watch this Memorial Day weekend, even though the remake of the horror classic Poltergeist may be tempting, definitely plan to see Disney’s Tomorrowland. You will be delightfully entertained for the entire runtime of the movie. It is highly unlikely that you will become bored in this film. Grab your friends, after your Memorial Day cookout, and head to the theatre.

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Also, a big thank you to all the men and women who serve in the US Armed Forces, as we specifically remember the ones who currently serve or have fallen on this special weekend.