Tag Archives: Justin Hurwitz

‘First Man’ Review: A ghostly vision of grief

*This review contains spoilers for ‘First Man’*

First Man opens on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) piloting an X-15 in a flight out of the atmosphere. We can’t see his face behind his visor, the ascent through the clouds clouding it, and the rest of the cockpit, in extreme darkness. It’s an unsettling sight, one that’s difficult to shake. But that first shot — as well as the rest of the intensely physical, claustrophobic opening sequence, in which we get a brief glimpse at wonder in the Earth’s horizon reflected across his eyes — sets up Neil forcefully.

He hides himself. Maybe not purposefully. But his deep emotions are rarely explicit. We see him through what he does, and the rare moments where and when he chooses to express something — like in the backroom of his cabin, quietly sobbing out of view and behind his hands, at the wake for his daughter Karen, after her shattering loss to cancer.

And the loose, vulnerable, visceral way in which Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz traverse the loss makes it nearly unbearable, especially in a breath-stealing cut from Neil sitting with his daughter, gently stroking her hair, to her funeral, the harsh clicks of the casket being lowered beneath soil laid across the cut and the bare-bones strings of Karen’s theme haunting it.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

In fact, death, and the grief that follows, is the ghostly specter of the entire film. The film’s depiction of grief — the slow, guttural, seemingly unending feeling of sickness that forces oppressive gravity on your body from the inside, like a collapsing star — is overwhelming. And that framework is something that Ryan Gosling lives in so fully, down to his bones, so much so that a simple “sorry,” which Neil struggles to get out as he communicates to his kids the possibility that he might not ever come back, tells us everything we need to know about how much he’s struggling with his journey.

To arrive at such paralyzing death, Chazelle approaches both spacecrafts and the home with such a knowing internal focus. He knows the intangible connection and intimacy at the home. A shadowy, slow dance scene with Neil and Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) to Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman’s “Lunar Rhapsody” in front of a blue-lit curtain. Backyard conversations between aspirational astronauts over a beer and under the moon light. Playful freedom with kids in a game of hide-and-seek or in the backyard under the sun, where Chazelle takes a page from Terrence Malick.

He also knows how part of that comfort in the home is forever broken with the loss of a child. When the walls are suffocating and the people hardest to talk to about it, or anything of the sort, share those walls. When neighbors’ kids remind you of your own. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren light and shoot that broken space — particularly the neighborhood where a swing set reminds Neil of his daughter — with a ghostly tinge, deep blacks and hazy white light. And Hurwitz leans into his theremin, a sound that nears extraterrestrial, but lands more so in the spectral.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

It’s this approach to domesticity — a space often failed, failing those characters in turn — that does service to Janet, a decidedly more explicit person. In her care for their children, often intercut with Neil’s missions. In her confrontation of death, brought to near breaking points by those missions and his refusal to talk about them or their daughter, prompting her to reach into him herself and force him to talk to their kids so that they don’t end up broken in the way that he is. In her support for Pat White, wife of Neil’s colleague Ed, as she confronts death. In all this, Foy is riveting, rendering Janet as her own pilot of sorts, especially when Neil’s above.

NASA is Neil’s escape, work that he’s good at. And the work can be so indescribably beautiful, like the home can be. In Gemini VIII’s groundbreaking docking with the Agena, Chazelle constructs the sequence not triumphantly, but with pure awe and wonder at the stunning beauty. To Hurwitz’s “Docking Waltz,” an elegant, graceful piece, the crafts are gentle dancers in space, a vision clearly sprung out of Chazelle and Hurwitz’s affinity for classical music and musicals, but also clearly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But space travel brings more death, tying a permanent bond to it just like the home has. With monstrous and jarring sound design, purely perspectival and quite shaky shots (mostly extreme close-up), and a score that, in especially terrifying instances like Gemini VIII’s malfunction after docking with the Agena, verges on horror, Chazelle makes it abundantly clear that these are rattling metal death traps, and that it’s miraculous that human beings can travel in them.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

But is the human cost worth it? Chazelle constantly poses this, even when the characters of his film don’t, don’t want to, or are too late in doing so. However, Chazelle doesn’t necessarily formulate an ultimate answer, suggesting instead that the horribly tragic deaths were, at least, not in vain.

And that’s because of not the triumph of the moon landing, but the scope of it, something writer Josh Singer lays out toward the beginning of the film when Neil is asked why space travel is important.

“I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more of the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen a long time ago, but just haven’t been able to until now.”

“Space exploration changes your perception.”

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

As Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Neil open the craft door to the moon, we shoot out, the frame expanding, on full IMAX screens, to roughly six stories tall, and halt on a grey, barren landscape. The moment is quite literally arresting, as the massive sight is suddenly consumed in silence. Neil slowly descends, logging details about the ladder and the texture of the surface.

Then, he steps down and utters his famous words.

What’s so staggering about the moment is that it’s shot from an angle much like the real footage, and the almost square frame of the IMAX footage replicates the almost square frame of the 16mm real footage — except we see so much detail and the image takes up so much of our view. The reality of the construction of the shot and the reality of the detail in the footage combine to render the moment transcendent. We’re there.

But Chazelle doesn’t shoot the rest of the sequence like that. He very quickly returns to the ghostly, Hurwitz’s theremin following. The first footprint is meditated on. Buzz’s playful hopping across the surface is almost, like the docking sequence, an elegant dance, but quieter and more contemplative.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

And Neil is shot in close-up, his visor reflecting the moon and its horizon over his face, the shadow of a man in what looks like the land of the dead. Scored by the restrained, but waning theremin piece, “Moon Walk,” the scene intercuts grainy, home video style footage of Neil and his family when Karen was alive, but expanded to the full screen as well, the parallel imbuing those loving moments with a scope just as large as the moon. And then, Neil steps up to a crater, pulls down the gold layer of his visor — revealing his tearful face and, really, himself for the first time — and holds out a bracelet of Karen’s, dropping it to the bottom.

Like the speech prepared in case of failure (which Chazelle partially includes) suggests, the sacrifice of the mission was not in vain, nor would it have been were Neil and Buzz to have to remain on the moon. But even though they came back, another part of the universe remains touched by mankind, no further than man has gone today.

And though Neil did not die on the moon, a piece of his daughter lays to rest there, allowing Neil to find a peace he couldn’t before.

Universal Pictures/Courtesy

The sequence deliberately ends on that moment, something so human, and cuts to archival footage of the hundreds of millions around the world that watched a pinnacle human achievement — the death that it took to get there honored by so much life. And while inarguably indulgent, Chazelle turns, respectfully romantic, to Kennedy’s famous speech.

Chazelle then ends his film like he’s ended all of his films: with a simple look. But too like those other films, the look embodies everything that the film is and finds some solace in the imperfect place it leaves its characters. While there is a wall and a window between them due to Neil’s quarantine upon return from the lunar surface, a wall that sits as much more than just physical, Neil and Janet connect in a way they struggled to after Karen’s death, hands against the glass, looking into each other’s eyes.

It’s odd for such a film, one of a momentous historical moment, to end up as an artful poem with the spirit of Dylan Thomas. But death permeates First Man because it had to. The human achievement was not simply for or of the time, but beyond the time. Throughout the film, Chazelle portrays Neil in his backyard, looking up at the moon, the camera refocusing through the branches to find it. Death has fallen around and upon the human beings who have looked up and wondered at our place in the stars ever since we left the cave. And while our attempts to venture further and define that place will always be touched by death, we don’t stop in fear of it. We keep going because of it. We keep going to pay respect to it.

Featured image via Universal Pictures

‘La La Land’ and the love that fades

Mia and Seb don’t end up together.

For all of its swoon-inducing musical numbers and fantastical visions of romance, La La Land is a tale about how love doesn’t always work out. The film is a tender warning, but it’s not pessimistic. It’s empathetic, not just for love faded, but for people with passion. In fact, the first two minutes of La La Land, during the enchanting number “Another Day of Sun,” are about a break up, and a young woman’s drive to make it as an actress.

The entertainment industry is ruthless, and writer-director Damien Chazelle introduces us to this conflict immediately, as Mia gives everything to an audition — a monologue that hints at its own heartbreak — only to be interrupted in the middle of it.

Sebastian’s introduction is of the same note. His sister chastises him for his countless unpacked boxes, joking that it seems like he’s just gone through a breakup before trying to set him up with someone. But Seb stays stubborn. He’s waiting to unpack his boxes in his club and doesn’t think he’ll like her if she doesn’t like jazz. He defends his untidy space by saying that he had a serious plan, but was “shanghaied.” His sister retorts that he was just ripped off by some shady guy, suggesting that “shanghaied” is too romantic.

“Why do you say romantic like it’s a dirty word?”

At first, the line oozes with the cliche of a typical romantic, searching for love. But this mention of the word is not in regard to some past relationship or some goal for the perfect someone. It’s in relation to an idea of oneself as an artist doing everything they can to make it. Seb embraces a romance with music, unashamed.

And Mia wants to be an actress. Those are the goals that La La Land starts with. Those are the lives that it envisions from the start.

Yet, those are the lives that can so easily fall into one another, the people that can so easily fall in love with each other. Mia and Seb officially meet at a party, as she networks and he plays a crap gig. The meeting seems almost too full of fate, too romantic, but people with passion tend to fringe familiar space.

And immediately, within three minutes of their introduction, Damien Chazelle indulges in the magical with “A Lovely Night.”

Chazelle truly understands how otherworldly love can be, even when it’s simply the awkward, playful first sparks. Mia and Seb’s first song-and-dance is almost entirely about their initial rejection of the sparks. But Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, choreographer Mandy Moore, and cinematographer Linus Sandgren inject the scene with a levity that makes it feel as though the two could float into the sky at any minute. A simple Los Angeles hillside is rendered as dazzling as a dream.

They start to embrace those sparks through support of each other’s passions. Artists know an artist’s inner fire better than anyone else ever could, so when one lifts up another in their pursuit of dreams, it means something.

Those sparks almost die out, but Mia finally makes the decision to light them. The two meet up again at a movie theater, and as the film stock of the movie they watch bubbles and burns out, it becomes abundantly clear what Chazelle is doing.

He’s not only suggesting that Mia and Seb’s love has become its own movie in that world, the film stock burning out just as they’re just about to kiss for the first time and their drive to Griffith Observatory replicating that from Rebel Without a Cause, but he’s utilizing the tools of cinema to accomplish this himself with his movie. He’s using his own passion to pay tribute to, to do true justice to love between passionate people. And when Mia and Seb run off to Griffith Observatory, there, finally, they both float into the sky

But no matter the feeling of love, or the feeling that cinema leaves us with, there is a reality underneath. And that’s the reality of two people with passion trying to pursue their goals as they pursue their love.

It’s difficult. There’s an incredibly thin line of balance where both people are able to make both parts of their lives work. Rather simply, Mia and Seb could not find that balance. They both compromised too much for them not to crack. As we saw at the beginning, Seb is a stubborn guy. He was prone to say something he’d regret with the stress of excessive compromise, like at the heartbreaking dinner scene. And in the whiplash of that realization, Seb responds by not compromising enough, missing Mia’s play and solidifying the crack.

In the fallout, the most crucial moment of delivering on the film’s themes, Damien Chazelle remains empathetic. While there may be a crack in the romantic love that had formed, the two hold onto love for each other as people, which includes a support for each other’s passions. Through that, Mia is finally able to break through. And with that comes the film’s most emotionally raw number, “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” — a song about love for art and love for artists.

La La Land comes to a close, the film’s final musical number perhaps its most transfixing, precisely because it’s the embodiment of the film’s empathy for people with a passion and for love faded. The fairytale that is “Epilogue” is simultaneously a magical cinematic commemoration to a love that was true and a what if for a love that could have been.

There was a chance for the film to end tragically, with Mia simply walking out of Seb’s. But a simple smile acknowledges and becomes everything that “Epilogue” represents.

Mia and Seb don’t end up together. But love sometimes doesn’t work out. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. And that doesn’t mean it has to be reflected on as something sad.

Mia and Seb don’t end up together. And that’s okay.

 

Featured image via Lionsgate.