Forget your tired, old costumed superheroes. It is time to reconnect with the original all American champion thanks to Ryan Gosling, in Damien Chazelle's latest masterpiece 'First Man'. The opening film at this year’s Venice Film Festival makes cinematic dreams come true.
While I rode on the water taxi from Marco Polo airport towards the Lido, I looked up the length of 'First Man' and thought, I wonder how I'll sit still for 136 minutes -- that's two full hours and fifteen minutes! And yet when I walked out of Chazelle's breathtaking movie view into the lives of astronauts I couldn't believe that the time had passed so quickly.
'First Man' counts among its producers Steven Spielberg and is based on James R. Hanson's book 'First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong'. Hanson himself disclosed his thoughts on wanting to write Armstrong's biography, apart from having grown up less than fifty miles from the American hero and having attended the same college: "What we know of Neil is as this one dimensional, iconic symbol... but he was a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being.”
And the human stories of extraordinary people do make for pure cinematic magic.
Prooducers Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen had been developing 'First Man' for a while before Chazelle came on board. About him Godfrey says: “Damien wanted to treat the story like a thriller. He wanted to defy expectations about what it took to successfully land a man on the moon, and put you in the shoes of what it would have been like at the time — with all of the technological barriers facing these guys.”
For me personally 'First Man' worked on many different levels. First because it seemed more like an epic opera than a film, and the idea that these brave men would sit for days in little, dark, squeaky tin capsules made the two and some hours I had to sit inside the packed screening room seem like a dash in time. Also the film creates a real connection between the audience and Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (played with perfect foot-in-mouth charm by Corey Stoll) et al (the ensemble includes Pablo Schreiber, Ciarán Hinds and Lukas Haas) because Chazelle takes us along on a journey with these exceptional men. He brings us back to an America which was different, when the name of our country was proudly written in big bold letters on the side of these enormous machines that took humanity onto new frontiers. I mean, they took us to the moon!
It was a time when excellence and hard work were rewarded, not mediocrity. We didn't consider it an achievement taking photos of ourselves eating ice cream, pretending to hold up the leaning tower of Pisa and posting those on social media. We liked our country, didn't need or cared to click like on videos of kittens playing the piano. It was an age when, as John F. Kennedy says in archival footage at the end of 'First Man', things were tried and achieved "not because they are easy but because they are hard." Try selling that as your political campaign today! Our politicians are reality star, and that's our latest reality.
And then, there is the courage of the men portrayed in the film, their wives, Armstrong's wife Janet (played spectacularly by Claire Foy) and what they, collectively and individually sacrificed and endured to take us to the moon. The missed opportunities with their families, the tragedies of those men who died for this mission and the blood, sweat and tears -- all of which Gosling gives us so well, up-close and personal in 'First Man'. Just as I sat thinking that Chazelle could very well be the best modern-day American filmmaker we have, Gosling is the perfect contemporary movie star.
A final thought. I grew up with the space program, I mean by the time I was conscious of my memories, I knew man had landed on the moon. As a young adult, I witnessed the Challenger disaster live on TV. All of it, the good, the not-so-good and the bad represented this land I had once dreamed about and which, remarkably, one day would become my home. "If we don't like it there, we'll come back," my mother used to promise, as we packed our Italian home to move to America. But once we arrived, that land offered herself to me, I thrived and struggled and conquered my fears -- all thanks to my surroundings. I still love my America, flaws and all.
Somehow, no other film has ever explained that feeling like 'First Man' does so perfectly and once again, as he did with 'La La Land' two years ago, Chazelle has gifted us, his audience, with the magic of the movies.
Oh and for the meaning of the video below, how perfectly it fits into the narrative as a nuance, you'll have to watch 'First Man' -- the film opens in the US on October 12th.