Magnificent Desolation

first-man-imax-poster

Neil Armstrong — an American hero and a pioneer in the field of space exploration, it’s true, but does the public en masse know his struggles as well as he and his family did? The answer, and then some, is provided in First Man, the third feature film from Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. Certainly, it was an unexpected move from the director of music films Whiplash and La-La Land to do a period piece about the greatest voyage humankind ever bore witness to, but damned if it isn’t his finest, and one of the finest movies of the year.

Grounded as an Air Force test pilot and traumatized by a recent tragedy, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) applies to NASA’s nascent Gemini program to get a new start for himself, his wife Janet (Claire Foy, Breathe) and their son. In doing so, Neil is tested in all manners of speaking as he tests the limits of the atmosphere, the patience of public and politicians alike and the strength of his family.

Among the cast, Gosling finally proves his mettle in my eyes as more than a handsome face and a cutesy voice, and brings realism and humanity to the legendary Armstrong. Similarly, Ms. Foy is at her career best with this film, bringing an truthful portrayal of the struggles felt by the wife of an astronaut, wondering if the man she loves will ever come home to her and holding the fort largely by herself (bringing to mind an equally stellar Sienna Miller in 2014’s American Sniper). Other notable standouts include Jason Clarke (The Chicago Code) as Edward White, a colleague of Neil’s who serves as a shoulder for him to lean on at times, and Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Elliott See, an early acquaintance of Neil’s during the interview phase of the Gemini program. Finally, Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) brings all the requisite smarm and crass behavior to the utterly asinine Buzz Aldrin — the accuracy is much appreciated!

Chazelle shows real talent as a director with this film — unlike his wanton tail-riding of other, better movies (let’s face facts, La-La Land is just a modernized An American in Paris), he seems to have gone deep in ensuring authentic performances of his actors — no one is hamming it up for an Oscar — and portraying the 1960s without glamorizing or mocking it. Also, in a wise move, the lunar landing scene is entirely film in IMAX, bringing an expanded view for such a pivotal scene, and heightening the reality of the moment — if you have the good fortune of being near an IMAX Laser theater, get your tickets now! Josh Singer’s script — itself based on a chronicle of the same name by James R. Hansen —  never goes to the hysterical level of other space chronicles or period pieces. The words coming from these actors’ mouths feel natural, not at the Aaron Sorkin level of ego and hyperbole, and the events shown are certainly believable and honestly portrayed.

The film also arrives at a most apropos time, for in a day and age when public interest in our intergalactic future is at an all-time high, a film like First Man presents a reminding view to audiences; apathetic generations less concerned about contributions to history and human progress than putting band-aids on Earthbound problems — sounds to me like an additional past America, circa 2008-2016. The fact is we need to explore space continuously — even if no life exists beyond Earth, we can learn so much and further human advances in technology, medicine and countless other fields all from journeying from one habitable planet to the next. After all, why did maritime explorers look for a new world?

First Man is a brilliant, tautly-crafted film, honest in every detail, and while it almost certainly won’t win many, if any, of the awards it’s hyped to get (let’s be real, Oscars don’t do science… or honest history), it doesn’t need them. It never stoops to the overbearing caricature of space exploration and its conflicts that Apollo 13 was, nor does it bombard the viewer with fact and conjecture a la (the still very brilliant) Interstellar. No, this is a movie of its time for our time; a reminder that the future is up there, far beyond the atmosphere and, soon, the stars.

Rating: 5/5

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Purpose of Evasion

In theory, selling one’s soul does have many benefits — getting all that you desire and then some in exchange for one small thing. The key words in that sentence are and then somebecause once you have it, can you really be content with what you have, or do you have to go deeper? Questions of a similar ilk are asked in Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace)’s stellar new film, Black Mass, about the ill-advised and ill-fated deal struck between the FBI and Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger.

Too often with biographical pictures, you remember that you are watching A-listers playing real people. That being said, in a way that few other actors have before, Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) excels in his portrayal of Whitey Bulger, with all the innocence of a playground bully and all the terror that Satan himself could ever possess. It doesn’t take long to forget that he is an actor — he becomes the scariest bastard you’ve ever seen. If he does not win Best Actor next year, then the Oscars intelligentsia will have royally screwed the pooch.

Joel Edgerton (The Gift)’s portrayal of FBI Agent John Connolly is one of a man broken by his own allegiances, one of a childhood friendship with Bulger, the other to the bureau and, by association, the United States of America. Choosing the former drags himself deeper into willful ignorance and pathetic nihilism, leading him to his ultimate fate. Edgerton pulls off this role with aplomb, and wisely makes no attempt to appeal this character to the audience.

Going from Masterpiece to Massachusetts is Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) as Senator Bill Bulger, brother of Whitey and as complicit as Connolly. Cumberbatch masters the Boston accent and, in raising his voice ever so slightly, also convinces the audience of being someone other than himself — it’s little things like those that can make the performance all the more convincing.

Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), making his entrance in the third act of the film as Fred Wyshak, a federal agent who, unlike Connolly’s entourage, cannot be bought and seeks to bring Bulger down. In the midst of all the corruption taking place, his appearance is a breath of fresh air to a viewer trapped in putrid darkness. That being said, the light in said darkness is David Harbour (Quantum of Solace)’s portrayal of Agent John Morris, a confidante of Connolly’s who, under pressure of a guilty conscience, exposes his superior and Bulger’s shady deal and everything in between.

The creative crew behind the film does a fine job, particularly cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey), with gritty close-ups populating the film and almost experimental focuses, but the real lynchpin of the film is, in point of fact, its score, created by DJ-turned-film composer Tom Holkenborg (Mad Max: Fury Road). Muted yet powerful, it enhances the story and actions onscreen, in the same way that his instructor, Hans Zimmer, did with his score for Frost/Nixon.

Black Mass is a brilliant showcase of the horror in ignorance and the shame of dealing with the devil, even if he is your boyhood chum. This movie comes highly recommended, for the aforementioned reasons and education come next year’s Academy Awards.

Rating: 5/5