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Not the Alt-Right Stuff: “First Man” and the Postnationalist Depoliticised Space Myth…

There is something uniquely American about the space programme.

Of course, America is not the only country that went into space. China has successfully launched a man into space, and India is planning to launch another person within a few years. America was not even the first country to launch a man into space. Many of the important “firsts” in space travel were claimed by the Soviet Union; the first dog launched into space, the first man launched into space, the first orbit of the planet, the first space-walk. In hindsight, America’s claim to winning the space race might not be that they went first, but that they went furthest.

Nevertheless, the space race is an important and defining part of American identity. It might be because the United States won the Cold War, and this sort of journey is perfectly representative of a symbolic victory in an ideological war. It might be because the space race sits so perfectly within the American self-image, the logical extension of distinctly American concepts like the limitless (whether “new” or “final”) frontier or “manifest destiny.” It may simply be that the United States is a country very keenly focused on its future, and that reach towards the sky is the ultimate push towards the future.

It is almost impossible to separate the space race, at least historically, from American identity. Even the utopian postnational future of the Star Trek franchise is very consciously filtered through an American lens. (Jean-Luc Picard, the franchise’s only non-American lead, is a delightfully hazy mix of vague European clichés including a taste for tea and British accent, against a French name and ownership of a vineyard.) To be fair, modern space-set stories like The Europa Report or Doctor Who or Sunshine tend to place a greater emphasis on international cooperation, but space is till seen as a primarily American concern.

When British-American director Christopher Nolan decided to make a movie about the space race in Interstellar, he steeped it in Americana. The film was not only about a mission organised by NASA, but the entire film was steeped in Americana that suggested the whole enterprise was inseparable from American identity; baseball games, tales of the Great Depression, the corn fields of rural America, even the soothing Texas accent of Matthew McConaughey. A charming piece of retrofuturism, of nostalgia for how we used to look at the future, Interstellar was an ode to the space race as a defining part of American identity.

This makes sense. Many of the images and signifiers of space are still tied specifically to the United States. After all, it is estimated that almost fifteen percent of the world’s population watched the moon landing, a defining moment of American triumph. The image of the American flag planted on the lunar surface is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century, inexorably tying the moon mission to ideas of nationalist endeavour and triumph. Like Antarctica, the moon might theoretically exist beyond the claims of any one government, but it’s also impossible to separate it from that image of the flag.

This perhaps explains why the decision not to show the planting of that flag in First Man has been so controversial, quite aside from the general (and exhausting) trend towards politicisation of everything. The moon landing is so casually and so straightforwardly accepted as a triumph of American nationalism that even eluding a part of the story that everybody knows anyway is treated as an affront. The response to this artistic decision treats it as a betrayal to American identity and an attempted erasure of what is a fundamental part of this story.

However, there is something very interesting in the way that First Man approaches the nationalism inherent in the space race, and the movie’s decision to place its emphasis elsewhere feels like a very pointed (and very timely) shift of focus on one of the defining narratives of the American century.

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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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14. La La Land – This Just In (#23)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.

podcast

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Non-Review Review: The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is a superb piece of work, a retro seventies buddy action comedy with charm to spare.

The Nice Guys is dripping with period detail. The opening tracking shot swoops behind the iconic “Hollywood” sign, still trapped in a state of decay. The characters wear brightly coloured suits. The soundtrack is populated by recognisable disco and funk songs. There are repeated references to President Richard Nixon. Characters smoke like troopers and drive around in open-top convertibles while somehow managing an unhealthy combination of sideburns, stubble and moustaches. In short, the film is set in the seventies, and the audience won’t forget it.

Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Cigarette-Smoking Man.

However, The Nice Guys has a much deeper retro charm. It harks back to the sort of buddy action films that have become a rarity these days, the story of two lovable klutzes who wander into a life-or-death mystery that gradually unravels over the course of two hours. The stakes are charmingly low-key; there is no city destroyed, no threat on a planetary scale. The characters are broadly drawn archetypes, but neither have be chosen or fated. There are at most a couple of lives resting on their shoulders, their own included.

The Nice Guy harks back to a very nineties buddy action comedy aesthetic, demonstrating a nostalgia that is more than skin deep, but which is nonetheless endearing.

Board to death.

Board to death.

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Non-Review Review: Lost River

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

There is a good film buried somewhere in Lost River.

Unfortunately, it is probably buried as deep as the community that give the movie its name.

lostriver5

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My 12 for ’13: Only God Forgives & Neon Nightmares…

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 7…

Few films this year have stayed with me as vividly as the rich and disturbing visual and aural landscape of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. It’s a decent into a neon hell, a world half-inhabited by the damned and stalked by demons. With Cliff Martinez’s pounding score still echoing through my head long after my last viewing, Only God Forgives is a haunting piece of cinema, a nightmare captured on digital.

onlygodforgives6

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Non-Review Review: Only God Forgives

Only God Forgives is a journey into hell. It’s an unpleasant, uncomfortable, terrifying, surreal, macabre, haunting, eerie and beautiful exploration of brutality and violence. Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film isn’t anywhere near as accessible as Drive. It isn’t just bereft of sympathetic characters, it doesn’t even feature any characters who lend themselves to empathy or recognisability. Ryan Gosling’s Julian is so introverted and withdrawn that it’s often difficult to determine the difference between reality and his surreal dream sequences.

Then again, given Refn suggests the man is living in his own private hell, perhaps there’s not too much difference any way.

Wanna fight?

Wanna fight?

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