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TIFF 2018 Review: First Man

Dull but successful Oscar-bait with a pro-American agenda

Fresh from his Oscar-winning La La Land, director Damien Chazelle’s latest film, First Man, takes on the story of Neil Armstrong in the decade leading up to his moonwalk. The film can be best summed up as “bland”: with bland performances in a bland looking film, it is blandly entertaining, and blandly inspiring. Plot and pacing do well (a feat within the 138 minute film), and the tone strikes a balance between the scientific and the emotional, resulting in an accessible but engaging story. Ryan Gosling as Armstrong lacks the gravity (no pun intended) to carry off more intense scenes, while Claire Foy as his wife is thanklessly underused, but the film does not suffer much for a mishandling of actors. Visually the film is almost aggressively uninteresting, but not unentertaining, successful in its alternatingly thrilling and moving narrative.

But why was First Man made today, and in this way? In the current political context, we have a film which is disturbingly pro-America. Taking up the story of the individual astronaut, the film revels in a stoic, macho heroism, while we are confronted with images of white American patriarchal greatness (flags, international recognition, and a clip of JFK’s “We are going to the moon!” speech amidst angry competition which never present Soviets). In a disturbing segment we even see protestors (young, mostly women and Black men), repeatedly complaining that “whitey’s on the moon!” Reducing real critique (men are dying in a space race to beat the Soviets while funds are not being used to help the struggling humans on Earth) to aggressive, anti-progress idiocy, the film feels frighteningly reactionary to the context it was made in. Presenting the 1960s as a white utopia of men being men, women being women, and Americans being the greatest, the blandness of First Man is actually quite sinister.

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Chelsea Phillips-Carr

Chelsea Phillips-Carr is a freelance writer from Toronto. She has an MA in cinema studies.