Ready or not, the fall awards season is here.
Filled to the brim with potential Oscar players, the 75th Venice Film Festival kicks off today with director Damien Chazelle’s FIRST MAN, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. One could say it’s a surprising pick on the organizers’ part, seeing how Chazelle just opened the festival two years ago with LA LA LAND, and that GRAVITY, another space-themed drama had the honor all but five years ago. But the film, a polished studio production featuring breathtaking action sequences and a snapshot of America at its most singularly inspiring, proved a welcome, timely choice.
Not having grown up in the States, I obviously knew about NASA’s landmark achievement of landing Neil Armstrong on the moon, but the particulars of that mission, including the years of preparation and sacrifice of the men and women involved, have so far eluded me. FIRST MAN chronicles nearly a decade of work that went into accomplishing something that, even when you think about it today, is completely bonkers. In this Trumpian age of cheap materialistic world views and anti-intellectualism, this portrayal of a collective, single-minded pursuit of excellence moved me.
The film opens in 1961 in the middle of one of Armstrong’s earlier test flights. At first we only hear ominous rattling sounds growing louder and increasingly urgent before Gosling’s face appears in a tight close-up as he tries to pull the spacecraft upwards with visible effort. The relentless metallic creaks from the incontrollably shaking vehicle immediately put you in an environment of extreme pressure and imminent danger, only to cease all of a sudden as Armstrong breaks through the atmosphere and gets sucked into the oceanic silence of outer space. Well, until a mechanical malfunction threatens to bring him crashing back down to earth, that is.
I arrived in Venice late last night and didn’t get much sleep, but let me tell you this scene woke me right up. In mere minutes it encapsulates the hazard, wonder and volatility of space travel in a violently visceral way. Just like the characters you feel the brutal thrust required to send thousands of tons of metal to the stars, you notice the vulnerability of the machinery meant to protect you as it screams in protest of an impossible task and sense, on a gut level, the utter powerlessness of being the man at the wheel. Together with a few other launch sequences that also take you inside the cabin to experience everything around you being pushed to human/mechanical limit, Chazelle demonstrates the rare skill of staging epic spectacles within a most intimate setting.
As for the drama side of things, I appreciate above all the depiction of camaraderie between and the uncynical heroism of the astronauts. These are people who risk their lives on a day-to-day basis. At home they have their family’s questioning faces to answer to. At work they have money-driven politicians breathing down their necks. And yet when the time comes to defend a seemingly mad idea with no apparent practical payoff, even their most inarticulate words speak truths and express such uncompromised aspiration for greatness it reminds you how the world fell in love with America back then.
In Oscar terms, I would say the film’s sound department is a shoo-in for nominations. Richly complex and frighteningly textured, the soundscape of FIRST MAN spells adventure in capital letters and merits, on its own, a trip to your local theater with the baddest speakers. Justin Hurwitz, who won two Oscars for the music of LA LA LAND, may have a shot for his contribution to the aural design of the film, as does cinematographer Linus Sandgren, another LLL alumnus, for his work behind the camera.
Tonight will see the premiere of one of my most anticipated titles at this year’s festival, Rick Alverson’s THE MOUNTAIN, before the competition really heats up with (insanely) back-to-back screenings of ROMA and THE FAVOURITE tomorrow morning. Check back for our first thoughts.