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“One Priceless Moment”: “Apollo 11”, and the Search for a Singular Defining Narrative…

This July marked the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landings.

It was an occasion marked with much discussion and celebration. The nostalgia had arguably kicked into high gear the previous winter with Damien Chazelle’s First Man, an awards-season biopic looking at the life of Neil Armstrong. Mired in an absurd controversy, First Man failed to make as much of an impact as it might. It under-performed at the box office and ended up shut out of the big awards races. However, there were other celebrations of the landmark date. Donald Trump met with the surviving astronauts. Mike Pence used the occasion to push for a manned mission to Mars.

There was also Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11. This documentary is interesting, in large part because it eschews a lot of the conventions of these sorts of retrospective celebrations. There are no talking heads; what little exposition exists in the film is drawn from a combination of archive recordings and public materials, without any sequences of participants or experts trying to explain the footage that the audience is seeing. Indeed, a lot of Apollo 11 flows without dialogue, a sequential retelling of the moon landing stitched together from newly-discovered 70mm footage.

What is most striking, and most successful, about Apollo 11 is the fact that it captures the essence of the moon landing as much as the finer details. The intimate footage – cobbled together from dozens of sources  – offers a rare and intimate insight into the mission, but that is not the source of the documentary’s power. Apollo 11 fundamentally understands the appeal of the idea of the moon landing, particularly at this moment in time. Stitching together countless different perspectives of the same event into a singular cohesive narrative, it offers a glimpse of a rare moment where mankind was “truly one.”

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My 12 for ’18: Seeing It Again for the First Time in “First Man”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number three.

It is difficult to separate First Man from the cultural war around it.

There is always at least one piece of awards fare that generates a storm in the proverbial teacup, often around hot-button political issues. La La Land was the most contentious Best Picture nominee of its awards cycle, generating heated debate around issues of identity and cultural appropriation. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was the most controversial film the following year, most notably around its treatment of race and the portrayal of racism within local police departments.

First Man seems increasingly unlikely to secure a Best Picture nomination. This is likely in part due to its underwhelming box office performance, but also down to the toxic debate that has unfolded around it. It seems strange that the people so angry at First Man would be fine with the likely nomination of Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody in its stead, but that is another debate entirely. First Man was a film that was everything (and nothing) to everybody (and nobody), a seemingly impossible feat.

First Man notably had too few flags for Marco Rubio. First Man also notably had too many flags for Richard Brody. First Man had too little patriotism for Buzz Aldrin. First Man had too much patriotism for Slate film writer Mark Joseph Stern. This is a remarkable and notable accomplishment of itself. At a point when the world seems divided on absolutely everything, First Man seemed to unite both sides of the political spectrum in outrage. That is one giant leap, after all.

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Non-Review Review: First Man

First Man offers a novel take on a familiar story.

The moon landing is one of the most important moments of twentieth century history, a defining for both America and the larger world. In fact, it remains emblematic of the furthest soil to which  man has ventured to this point. Our species had crossed the threshold of the upper atmosphere before and has done so since. In fact, mankind has even gone back to the moon, although those trips are fading from living memory. The moon landing remains a cultural and historical touchstone, and has been explored from countless perspectives.

Take your protein pill and put your helmet on.

It takes a lot to find a fresh pair of eyes on this journey, but Damien Chazelle does exactly that. The director makes this clear as early as the opening scene. The first time that the audience sees the Earth as a planet, it is not through an establishing shot or the windows of the makeshift space craft. It is reflected in the visor of Niel Armstrong, the warm blue horizon cutting across his visor just below his striking and piercing eyes. Ryan Gosling has always been an actor capable of communicating much through his eyes, and First Man asks us to appreciate space reflected back from them.

So much of First Man is told either focused on or looking through the eyes of Neil Armstrong; the majesty of space and lunar surfaces reflected in the visor of his helmet, or various first-person shot from inside elevators or falling swiftly to Earth. The audience is placed very much in Armstrong’s shoes. Even when Chazelle isn’t literally shooting the film from Armstrong’s perspective, he favours tight close-ups and handheld camera work in confined spaces to suggest that the audience is literally trapped within that space with Armstrong.

Rocket man.

There is no small irony in this, and Chazelle knows it. It seems strange that freshest pair of eyes on the lunar mission should be those of the first man to set foot on the moon. One might have expected the mythology to start there, but instead Armstrong has long remained a figure of mystery. Tacit and introverted, Armstrong has always seemed more like a legend than a human being. The novelty and the power of First Man comes from studying the man who made both that small step and that giant leap.

In doing so, First Man offers a powerful and intimate exploration of a very personal story that just happens to be told on the broadest canvas imaginable.

All fired up.

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Doctor Who: Day of the Moon (Review)

“No, it’s not Apollo 11. That would be silly. It’s Neil Armstrong’s foot.”

– The Doctor discusses his secret weapon

Well, that was fun. Reportedly, Steven Moffat stated that he wanted the season-opening two-parter to feel like a big season finale, with epic scale, huge stakes and genuine consequences, and – to be frank – I think he accomplished it. Perhaps Day of the Moon leaves just a little bit too much hanging for my own personal taste, but it’s still an exciting and fun conclusion to this story arc.

Spaced out...

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