[su_quote]“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.-Carl Sagan[/su_quote]
Damien Chazelle’s best film came and went without much fanfare. Maybe his fans were expecting a crowd of exuberant dancers to spring from cars and do another thing that could never be done: break out in song and dance on the 405. Maybe the new breed of American patriots who cling to the days when America was supposedly “great” hoped to relive one of those flickers of propaganda that justify our might as an empire. Maybe the usual audience for space movies was expecting something like Sandra Bullock at last walking on solid ground or Jessica Chastain hurtling towards Matt Damon to rescue the Martian from death.
It’s rare these days that anyone walks into a movie not knowing what they’re going to get. Studios have cut a bargain with ticket-buyers, promising them that there’s no need to worry about spending their money because they will know going in, like walking into any Starbucks or McDonald’s, that what they’re paying for is what they expect. So what then when something unpredictable, wholly original appears? No one really knows what to do with it.
But that’s not the film’s fault. While box office should be taken into consideration when lots of people love a movie. It shouldn’t hurt a movie that is artistically daring but doesn’t attract enough of the right viewers. No one should ever judge any kind of art that way. If we do, then what we are judging, in fact, is not artistic value at all, but rather the perception of success.
Why was it, do you think, that Justin Hurwitz created so much music to send to Damien Chazelle for inspiration? And why was it Chazelle kept pushing him in different directions: No, that isn’t right. No, we need more tension. And each time, Hurwitz would again hit the ground running, turning out one breathtaking piece of music after another — music so good it couldn’t come from a place of catchy hooks or familiar tropes. It couldn’t come from branding, or pre-awareness. It could only have come from that restlessness to reach higher. That’s the mutual drive to excel that Chazelle and Hurwitz naturally share with one another, and I hope the brutality of this season does not discourage them from that.
That impulse to strive ever higher also happens to be what the space program was about. If you look close enough at First Man, though — as with La La Land, as with Whiplash — you will see a self-portrait, in a sense. Chazelle’s leading men are talented, sure, but they’re isolated in their surroundings. They are disconnected from humanity in many ways, turning instead to that thing they can do better than living life. They can make art. Or music. Or go to the moon.
I didn’t expect, when I sat down to watch First Man, that this movie would go so far into the internal lives of Neil Armstrong and his family, as they saw all of the things science could do in space and none of the things it could do to cure brain cancer in their toddler daughter. I knew the film would showcase human strength, but didn’t expect it to delve so deep into human frailty. All of the human stuff — the fleshy, vulnerable, fragile stuff — up against the rickety, barely there technology that achieved a goal that only scientists could dream up.
I watched First Man as a science geek, getting the rare chance to see what it would really be like to be thrust into space. I watched it as a parent, gutted at the thought of losing a child. I watched it as an American. Not because we got there first. Not because I wanted to pound my chest and sing the National Anthem, but because there once was a president named John F. Kennedy who thought it might matter that we could devote our country’s boundless ambition and resources to getting there. Yes, America was once a promising ship steered by a great man — a man who would have become even greater if he hadn’t been shot. All through First Man run the threads of grief — for the Armstrong’s child they could not save, for the President who never lived to see his promise kept.
And I watched it as someone who loves movies. A movielover who revels in seeing what collaborators like these can do if given support and resources. The perfect, meticulous script by Josh Singer, almost too precisely detailed for a lot of audiences who really just want their hour and a half of uplift before being spit back out into the misery of everyday life. The way Singer and Chazelle work together to create a unique hybrid, something that almost all of the best films are. Perhaps that’s why First Man is, to me, the best of Chazelle’s film. I crave the wonky deep dive of someone like Singer who knows his history so well. It’s also why No Country for Old Men is such a great film and Insomnia is, to me, Christopher Nolan’s best film — the synergy between a story that existed before and the best way to visualize it. Sometimes you need the shifting points of view of a different writer and director. Even in the Coens’ case, they adapted the Cormac McCarthy novel and even when their visions diverged they remained faithful.
Movies are personal. No film can embed itself in our consciousness if we don’t find something there that resonates. But even if First Man wasn’t personal for me, and it is, I would still see it as a cinematic achievement like few others this year, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma being another. These films both premiered in Telluride and for me nothing has come close to topping them. I knew then, and I know now, that these two directors were working at the top of their game. And I also knew that these movies were going to be a tough sell.
Selling isn’t everything. Success cannot define art. It never has. It never will. When I think about high achievements in cinema, it’s hard to imagine being more ambitious, more daring, more thrilling than First Man. Is it going to make people leap to their feet and dance in the aisles? No. Is it going to make them feel better about Trump’s oafish concept of America First? Nope. Does it transport them into a fantasy world where there is no pain and no danger and no truth? No. It doesn’t do any of that. It offers up instead something that is unique to the landscape of the big screen. It offers up the raw talent of someone who transforms what we’re seeing into a new kind of language to convey fresh meaning. One influenced greatly by the music that thrums, hums, dips and dives all through it.
When you step into the cinematic universe of a Chazelle-Hurwitz collaboration, not only do you not know what story will unfold, you don’t know what the music will be. This was especially true in First Man, when suddenly out of nowhere we hear a dreamy harp and then, out of nowhere another kind of sound you don’t recognize. There are films like this where the score is its own character — true of the Social Network/Dragon Tattoo/Gone Girl trilogy, true of Scorsese/Peter Gabriel for the Last Temptation of Christ. And true of what goes on when Paul Thomas Anderson collaborates with Jonny Greenwood. It isn’t often a great director must factor in what their composer will do. In First Man the score is so important because this is a film that goes inside the emotional universe of one man as much as it takes him up beyond the threshold of our shared universe.
What a mighty metaphor that is. What a glorious, outstanding, unpredictable thing to see — an artist that smart who can tell that story that way. The cold vastness of our universe where everything that makes us human is rendered insignificant. We can’t survive there. And it’s only there, only then — with no sound except his own heartbeat and breath — that Neil Armstrong finally finds the courage to let go and say goodbye. If you are following the story closely, if you care by that point, you can’t forget it.
It’s easy to manipulate an audience, to give them what they want. It is equally easy to deliver a slice of life in a film. Just point the camera at a group of overlooked people and let their own vibrancy do all the work. What isn’t easy in 2018 — with so much prepackaged goods at our disposal — is to give people something they’ve never seen before, to hold onto this idea that filmmakers are still artists. Not accidentally, but deliberately.
This is a case for the best film of 2018. It’s just that no one in 2018 seems to realize it. Yet.