By John H. Foote
To be clear, this is one for the ages.
A soaring testament to what mankind is capable of when they work for the common good. The timing is perfect because America needs to feel good about something again.
There have been great films about the American space program and man in space. Among them The Right Stuff (1983), Phillip Kauffman’s soaring study of the Mercury astronauts, Apollo 13 (1995) a taut brilliant film about a near disaster in space, and Gravity (2013), a fictional account of a woman left to get back to earth on her own when debris damages the space station. There has not been anything like First Man, a gritty, raw, visceral entirely magnificent film about the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. And the film is just not about that famous moonwalk, but the man himself, the technology that put him there, and the intensely claustrophobic journey to get there.
The single most frightening thing about space travel that would terrify me would be the claustrophobic confines of the space capsule they used through the sixties and seventies, long before the shuttles that offer more room. I could not bear to be so confined, and then the knowledge you are sitting on enough rocket fuel to blow you into dust, well no thanks.
Yet many men, far braver than I, allowed themselves to be strapped down into those tiny capsules and shot into space. Many died, but eventually mankind got to the moon, and the words of American Neil Armstrong became iconic as he stepped on the dusty surface of the moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” I watched, transfixed in 1969 the static filled images broadcast back from the moon as Armstrong stepped down, and remember never again looking at the moon the same. How did he feel? When he gazed up into the night sky and looked at the single planet that anyone in his lifetime had ventured, knowing he was for a time the only man to have stepped on the moon, how did he feel? It was said Armstrong became very distant, remote and did not handle his fame well. So what? He earned his solitude in service to his country. He and his family gave and gave as the world watched, oblivious to their fears, the terror he might not come back, that something terrible could happen, as it often had and would with Apollo 13.
Damien Chazelle, fresh from his Academy Award win for Best Director for La La Land (2016), has directed a magnificent film of substance, humanity and raw beauty. The Academy will be hard pressed to find a better film this year, a more deserving winner for Best Director, because First Man is beyond the best film of the year, it is a masterpiece for the ages, one of the greatest films ever made.
A few inches of metal is all that protects the astronauts from harsh space, the bone chilling cold, no oxygen, and a terrible death because it would not be immediate and they would know what was to come.
To some great men it did not matter. The men who gave themselves to service in the Mercury program were each in their own right remarkable, and those that did it for the new Apollo program were equally fearless.
Neil Armstrong was such a man.
Portrayed beautifully by Ryan Gosling as a thoughtful, quiet father and husband who speaks when necessary, holding in the grief of losing a toddler daughter to cancer. Selected for the NASA Space Program, Armstrong proves to be a fast thinker, a problem solver, making him a natural to send into space. Working tirelessly on the rockets, improving them, watching his friends meet terrible deaths, easing his wife’s terror, seems to be part of the job and he serves with great dignity. In 1969 he was chosen to command the Apollo 11 mission, which would land on the moon and Armstrong would be the first man to set foot on another planet.
This is where Chazelle dazzles, allowing us to experience, as authentically as possible, what the astronauts of that time went through, what they felt like, and what they saw. Crammed, literally into the space capsule at the top of the rocket, when liftoff happens they are slammed into their seats by unimaginable thrust that takes them higher and higher into the heavens, until the clouds disappear and the sky becomes blacks, dotted with stars.
And then they land on the moon, a vast dusty surface, the likes none of us have ever experienced, or will for that matter. Slowly Armstrong descends the ladder, finally planting a boot in the dust of the moon and gazing up at a site no other man had ever seen before….earth. What must have it felt like to experience that? As they walk across the surface, bouncing in the gravity Armstrong stops at a crater and leaves behind something very special that belonged to his daughter, and as he drops it, he weeps.
The film is a masterpiece in so many ways. The acting from Gosling and Claire Foy as Janet his wife is exceptional, Corey Still is arrogance and attention Buzz Aldrin, and Patrick Fugit and Shea Whigham portrayed doomed friends. The special effects are as good as anything I have ever seen in a film, and Chazelle fills his film with realism but genuine poetry.
Best of the festival? For sure.
Best of the year? Perhaps.
One of the great films ever? Yep.
Awe inspiring, exalting, majestic…magnificent.
Through the first 10 years of the new century, Viggo Mortenson very quietly but forcefully became one of the finest actors at work in movies. He had been a character actor most of his career, supporting stars such as Harrison Ford and Demi Moore, but in the 2000’s he cut loose and has been dazzling audiences with brilliant performances ever since. I am mystified he is not yet an Oscar winner, but this new film could change that.
As Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings (01-02-03) he was remarkable, giving us a hero who was also a merciless warrior, able and willing to cut down anyone and anything that stood in the way of little Frodo destroying that ring in Mount Doom. Thinking Frodo long dead, seeing an army of orcs about to slaughter he and his remaining army, he gazes at Gandalf with such a look of respect, whispers “for Frodo” and runs directly into the mayhem, fearless, knowing death awaits. Such valour!!! Later in the film when crowned King it is he who leads the bow to Frodo and his friends, saying “My friends…you bow to no one” and he drops to a knee in honour of the little hobbits.
Only magnificent. Only regal.
And it continued to get better. He was superb as the former hitman trying to live a quiet life in a small town in A History of Violence (2006) for director David Cronenberg, reuniting with him for Eastern Promises (2007) in which he is again stunning as a Russian driver, bodyguard, who is so much more in the film. For this he earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor, well deserved. Two years later he gave what I thought was the finest performance on his career in The Road (2009) as a father trying to get his son to warmer temperatures and a better shot at life after a nuclear war has left the earth dying a slow, painful death. Cannibals roam the roads, attacking and killing innocents, and he keeps his son safe at all costs, even though he himself is dying of radioactive poisoning. Brilliant, just perfect in this bleak, challenging film but the actor was snubbed, not even nominated!!!!
Captain Fantastic (2017) was a very fine film that would earn the actor his second Oscar nod for Best Actor, a beautifully told story about a father who raises his kids off the grid and when their mother dies considers allowing her parents to take them. They are however devoted to him, and will not allow it.
And that brings us to Green Book, his broadest performance yet, and the one that might win him the Academy Award. As Tony, a bouncer and tough guy at the Copacabana, loving husband and father, he finds himself out of work. He accepts a job as a driver with a gifted black musician, knowing the man is going to encounter trouble in the Deep South, but he takes the job anyway, because the money is good and he needs the work. The downside is he will be on the road and away from his family for two months.
Clashing at once with the man he is driving around, portrayed by Mahershala Ali as a busy, prissy, well- educated man, Tony is initially worried that they are worlds apart, but gradually there is a bond between them Tony comes to see the dignity with which his friend lives his life, and he in turn teaches the man to cut loose and have some fun.
They do indeed encounter racial prejudice in the South, and Tony is sickened by it as he has bonded with his boss, his friend. They come to admire each other, respect one another and have taught each other a great deal about the others life by the end of the film.
It is a warm, lovely film that should be a major mainstream hit, and earn awards attention for the two leads. Though it has been a while since two actors were nominated in the leading category, it could happen this year for Mortenson and Ali. Looking beefier than he has before, Mortenson is rugged force of nature throughout the film, though he is possessed of an easy smile. Enormously likeable, Tony is always eating, or punching out anyone who dares cross him. But make no mistake, he watches, he takes everything in. Ali is cultured, brilliant, a homosexual and black in the Deep South, a natural target for bigots. Yet he too is watchful and smart, plastering a fake smile when the white audience applauds his music, though they will not allow him to eat with them.
In this remarkable study of friendship and personal growth, of two men evolving, in Tony, his boss finds both friend and protector.
Directed by Peter Farrelly, yep, the same one, who gives the film a wonderfully nostalgic feel. Just a beautiful movie.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.