First Man

FirstDirector: Damien Chazelle

Screenwriter: Josh Singer

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll

How do you follow up a movie that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (for five seconds), and then lost it. What kind of film do you make after having your hopes dashed at the last possible second, just short of experiencing the glory of a mission accomplished? You make a movie about the first god damned guy who went to the god damned moon and stood on the Moonlight itself, that’s what you do! Did Damien Chazelle make a movie about Ryan Gosling standing on a vacant non-musical moon to lament La La Land losing Best Picture to Moonlight? Of course not. There was no love lost between them, and Moonlight was the better film. But if he did, that’s poetry right there, a pure, uncut, mass media movie battle. Your move Barry Jenkins. I’m looking forward to your movie about a jazz drummer who doesn’t need an abusive music teacher to self-realize.

Anyway, First Man is Damien Chazelle’s follow up to La La Land, and it is a departure for him compared to his previous work, and mostly a good one. First Man is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the astronaut who became the first man to walk on the moon. However, a word of warning follows. If you are looking for another story of American ingenuity that results in a heroic and feel-good sense of accomplishment, look elsewhere. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer chose to adapt James Hansen’s authorized biography of the life of Neil Armstrong, which – spoiler alert – is not all moonwalking and giant leaps. Armstrong’s life encompassed some of the highest highs as well as some of the lowest lows imaginable, and Chazelle and Gosling bring these emotions to life with vigor.

This tense balance of highs and lows is apparent right from the start when the film opens on Armstrong as a young aeronautics engineer for the NACA, piloting a North American X-15 right into the edge of outer space, and then promptly back down to earth. It’s an intense and disoriented sequence of film.

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Soon Armstrong’s ambitions bring him to the NASA Astronaut program forcing him to uproot his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and family from California to Texas to join Project Gemini as part of the team of astronauts pivotal in putting the United States in the lead during the Space Race against the Soviets.

First Man, however, develops as a human drama rather than simply a biopic. Yes, the journey to the moon is central to the movie, but it is not essential to its impact. Objectively, this film could be about any person stifled by tragedy, loss, and cultural boundaries, who loses himself in the process. The journey to the moon is but an instrument to reveal his catharsis. Speaking of “instruments,” while First Man clearly lacks the musician aspect that has been front-and-center in Chazelle’s previous films La La Land and Whiplash, it is not without music in its core. The editing, orchestration, arrangement and choreography of surroundings is quite rhythmic. This element adds to the immersive quality of the film that continues to be a signature of this young director (although I was hoping that signature would also include another J.K. Simmons cameo).

First Man is a moody film full of emotion and grit. Ryan Gosling gives another brooding yet powerful performance worthy of the man he plays. Additionally, Claire Foy, an actress I admit I’m rather unfamiliar with, is the source of most of the film’s real impact. Her scenes transcend the “poor astronaut’s wife” tropes aspiring to something far more revealing. Her ability to emote anxiety, stress, and struggle under the guise of composure is remarkable. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with recognizable faces playing many of the familiar figures you’ve seen before including Ed White (Jason Clarke), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), but this film is very much a character piece examining Neil and Janet.

Once one understands that this film will not hit the notes you most likely were expecting, First Man works very well. Its disarming use of camera to focus on the human element of the action, and not the detached traditional view of things that we are used to is both uncomfortable and powerful. Overall, a poignant and dramatic exploration of a major historic event without the all too common escapist quality generally associated with this type of entertainment. A-

First Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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Hidden Figures

hfDirector: Theodore Melfi

Screenwriters: Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi

Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kirsten Dunst, and Kevin Costner

No matter how you felt about 2016, I think most of us could use a little pick-me-up in 2017. Well, enter Hidden Figures to provide a brief respite with a little chicken soup for the soul right when we desperately need it.

Hidden Figures is the true story about a group of African American women employed by NASA who were instrumental in the success of the now iconic and historic space missions of the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine Johnson, who along with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), work as human computers for NASA, doing calculations that the engineers need worked or verified. This proves to be a skilled yet monotonous task, and all the while the women working as Computers look on as the first International Business Machine (IBM) is being assembled across campus, threatening to render their roles obsolete.

An academic prodigy, Johnson’s prowess for Geometry gets her promoted to personal Computer for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), director of Guidance and Control, the branch responsible for calculating the trajectory for NASA’s first manned space launches. This sounds all well and good, but Harrison is not the warm, fuzzy type, and a room full of egotistical White, male engineers in the Jim Crow South does not exactly translate to a respectable work environment. The movie unfolds henceforth as tensions rise over the space race between America and Russia. Johnson must grapple with the hostilities of being a Black woman in a White man’s world while Jackson and Vaughan adapt to a changing world where computers are machines, not people.

There is a lot going on in this movie; far too much to summarize in a simple movie review. Each of the heroines’ stories is compelling and outstanding in its own special way. Writer/Director Theodore Melfi is wise to begin the film where he does and allow each of these characters to forge her own path in the face of societal and cultural stifling. While many of the tropes of traditional period biography are present, it’s the ones that don’t get played that make all of the difference. Several times, I set myself up for the inevitable and predictable harassment scene or cartoonish bigotry, and each time I was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen. Hidden Figures does not go for the cheap jab at your sensibilities, and instead takes the high road exposing the institutional racism of the time, not just the blatant form. We’ve seen many films depicting the shame and cruelty of “separate but equal,” but not as many that also reveal its inconvenience or question its complacency.

Furthermore, we have fantastic performances all around, of course from our leading ladies, but also from Costner and supporting players like Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Jim Parsons. Movies like this do come around every year, but Hidden Figures feels uniquely appropriate for right now. Additionally, the film aptly depicts the great John Glenn whom we lost last year and who deserves to be lionized as part of this story as well. Melfi is fast becoming a go-to writer and director when it comes to creating emotional and satisfying films. His previous film, St. Vincent was equally crafted, and Hidden Figures furthers his budding trademark theme of exploring the unconventional (and sometimes “hidden”) goodness in the world.

Hidden Figures is not groundbreaking or particularly edgy. What it is, is a spectacular, and relatively unknown story of progress and perseverance, without feeling cheap or going to the same old well. It feels fresh and inspirational, and while not especially deep, it does make for a good time at the movies. A-