2018 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was in full bloom in the late 1960s. Both countries raced against each other to be the first to land a man on the moon, launching a combined 65 unmanned probes and other such craft to analyze our planet’s singular satellite. Successful missions were completed on both sides to study the Moon’s soil and survey the facial landscape of this foreign destination, though the Soviets were always a step ahead in the pursuit. The photos and data returned were used to help scientists choose the proper approach for expeditions to land and explore.
The astronauts for each mission would undergo thousands of hours of intense training at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, while crews rehearsed the hundreds of stages and sequences necessary to land the module on the moon. Timeless hours were spent troubleshooting and problem solving for any situation, foreseeable and unforeseeable.
And then finally, on Sunday, July 20th, 1969 – after a grueling 250,000-mile journey that spanned over three days – Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first human beings to land on the Moon. They piloted the Lunar Module to touchdown while fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited nearby. Collins, along with millions of people back on Earth, waited anxiously to witness America’s most startling conquest. And with one small step for man, Damien Chazelle delivers a giant leap for theater audiences.
Chazelle (Oscar-winning director of “La La Land”) and screenwriter Josh Singer (Oscar-winning writer of “Spotlight”) adapted the script from James R. Hansen‘s biography “First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong.” The two had been in talks to work together on the iconic moon landing since 2015, and within three years they were bringing their vision to the screen. What we are gifted with is absolutely breathtaking to behold. “First Man” is an astonishing triumph of ingenuity and dexterity – simply brilliant.
Tom Cross‘ tightly wound editing paces the film marvelously, while Linus Sandgren‘s gorgeous cinematography leaves you often forgetting to take a breath. The visceral, claustrophobic direction places you in the cockpit of the shuttle, while two bona fide Oscar-worthy performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are amplified by the patience Chazelle uses throughout the film to develop and humanize the legendary characters. We see our first man as a man first, portrayed with understated and subdued excellence by Gosling. Meanwhile Foy steals the show as the woman left to carry the weight of the family, balancing the stress of a “single” mother with the gravity of the danger that her husband is in (she has more than one “Oscar scene”). Add to all of this what might be the greatest achievement in sound I’ve ever witnessed, and a gorgeous and celestial score composed by Oscar-winner Justin Hurwitz (“La La Land”), and the backdrop is set for what will likely be the front runner for Best Picture for most of the fall. The execution by all parties involved is remarkable. It’s high, grade-A cinema.
The evidence of their magnificent accomplishment is experienced while we sit knowing the outcome of the mission, yet we are able to suppress this knowledge in favor of sublime eagerness and uncertainty. Thus, the film becomes an extraordinary thriller. That’s part of the power great movies have and something we’ve all come to love about the cinema. “First Man” excels in this regard. I can’t say enough about how outstanding it was, but even all the hyperbole in the world won’t do the movie justice. “First Man” is a cinematic landmark.
One of the great moments in the film is the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, as the movie hurtles towards its climax. Chazelle keeps us with the astronauts for the entire journey, while others might have shown the crew at Houston celebrating, or the people back home reacting in the moment to those immortal first words. This decision was a stroke of genius and allows us to feel an ounce of the solitude and confinement the brave crew experienced. Only after it is all said and done do we reflect upon the reaction back home.
The Apollo missions were among the most accomplished in the history of space exploration, completing six out of seven Moon landings successfully (Apollo 13 being the one exception). It looks like Damien Chazelle’s career is about to follow that same trajectory of prosperity, as “First Man” is likely to join “La La Land” and “Whiplash” as Best Picture nominees. This time around, he might (actually) win.