First Man

Directed by Damien Chazelle who is best known for 2014’s Whiplash and 2017’s La La Land for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, First Man is a terrific biographical movie that explores the personal side of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission and is anchored by excellent acting performances and dramatic cinematography. We first meet Neil Armstrong, played by Golden Globe winner Ryan Gosling, in 1961 as he is attempting an extremely dangerous test flight at Edwards Air Force Base where he is a military test pilot. At the time, he and his wife Janet, played by Golden Globe winner Claire Foy, are struggling with the sickness of their young daughter Karen who is undergoing treatment for cancer; her memory will later serve throughout the film as a sort of metaphor for the personal life of Armstrong as he becomes world-famous for being the first man on the moon. Eventually, he is accepted to the NASA astronaut program and becomes one of the astronauts in Project Gemini, the space program that would lead into the Apollo missions with the goal of a lunar landing. Living in Houston in 1965, he develops close friendships with fellow astronauts, especially his neighbor Ed White, played by talented actor Jason Clarke, and his wife befriends the other astronaut wives who also have young children. While much of the film focuses on the more personal aspects of Armstrong and his family coping with his hazardous job, the filmmaker does an excellent job of recreating the very tense rocket launches in which the slightest problem could be catastrophic for Armstrong and the other astronauts aboard. Leading up to the climax of the film, Armstrong learns from NASA’s Chief of the Astronaut Office Deke Slayton, played by Emmy Award winner Kyle Chandler, that he will be the commander on Apollo 11, the mission selected for the first landing on the moon, and will be joined by the often lighthearted Buzz Aldrin, played by Cory Stoll best known for his role in the Netflix series House of Cards, and the Command Module Pilot Michael Collins. Before he is selected for the historic mission, tragedy strikes NASA on January 27, 1967 when a fire during a routine test for Apollo 1 engulfs the capsule resulting in the death of three astronauts, including Armstrong’s close friend Ed White and one of the original astronauts Gus Grissom, played by Shea Whigham best known for his role in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. The final scenes of the movie revolve around the actual mission of Apollo 11, complete with the dramatic takeoff, four-day flight to the moon, undocking the Lunar Module, and finally landing on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969 with hundreds of millions of people watching around the world. After becoming the first human to touch the moon, Armstrong’s immortal moon walk is portrayed as a much more introspective personal look into his life and what led up to such a historical event for all of mankind. He makes a touching tribute to his beloved daughter Karen, which helps bring the movie back to the beginning as he begins to lose his child to cancer. Overall, I found it to be one of the more memorable movies that effectively takes a quite different and more emotional approach to the space movie genre, that was elevated by the talented performances given by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, and kept the audience on the edge of their seats during the magnificent spaceflight sequences. The film must now be included in the historical space movie canon, joining the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 with each contributing a different aspect to the story of humans in space. For instance, the seminal 1983 movie The Right Stuff provided more of a historical background by showing Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier and the early efforts of the Mercury program that ultimately led the United States to the moon. On the other hand, the 1995 Ron Howard movie Apollo 13 was much more of a thriller in which the characters must figure out a way to survive after a catastrophic failure and focuses more on the actual mission.

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Colette

colette_xlgDirected by Wash Westmoreland best known for the 2014 movie Still Alice in which Julianne Moore received an Oscar for her role, Colette is a fascinating period drama about one of France’s most renowned writers and is quite remarkable for its terrific acting, especially the dazzling performance given by Keira Knightley. The film is based on the real-life story of the French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, played by twice Academy Award-nominated Knightley in arguably her greatest performance, who moves from the French countryside in the late nineteenth century to the artistic center of the world at the time Paris after marrying a well-known writer referred to as simply Willy, played by the twice Golden Globe-nominated British actor Dominic West. After witnessing her remarkable writing talents first-hand, Willy encourages her to write novels in which he would be fully credited for writing them. They come upon a great success with the publication of a novel loosely based on Colette’s early life revolving around a French country girl named Claudine and her daily life and adventures in rural France. Over the course of the film, Colette becomes increasingly distant from her controlling husband and decides she would like to write for herself with her real name instead of his. The filmmaker does an excellent job of creating a beautiful and realistic depiction of early twentieth century Paris through the use of high-fashion costuming and sumptuous Parisian scenery in which the arts and high society are highly valued. Amidst this exciting backdrop, Colette evolves into a much more independent individual who explores her own sexual expression by entering into a sexual relationship with a beautiful young socialite, played by Eleanor Tomlinson best known for her role in the BBC television series Poldark. She becomes quite the sensation and even causes a riot in an already liberalized Paris with her extremely progressive views and unorthodox artistic expressions through her fashion and writing, including performing a risqué mime act in which she kisses a masculine woman. At the same time, she faces her sometimes cruel and desperate husband whose finances are rapidly collapsing. It becomes quite clear that his own career will never be as successful after Colette refuses to write anymore Claudine novels that have become such a cultural phenomenon throughout France, and, as a result, he becomes a shell of himself and their marriage begins to disintegrate. Overall, I found it to be a truly wonderful film that is brought to life by the dynamic performances of the lead actors, in particular Keira Knightley, and is especially relevant to today’s society in which sexual and artistic expression is accepted and women are using their platforms to speak up for gender equality, just like Colette did in her time.

Operation Finale

operation_finale_xlgDirected by Chris Weitz who is best known as the cowriter of 2002’s About a Boy and 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the director of 2007’s The Golden Compass and 2009’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Operation Finale is based on the true life story of the hunt for and capture of one of the most notorious Nazi officers Adolf Eichmann, played by the always terrific Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley. Although the film does not fully live up to its expectations and can be at times slow, its greatest appeal is its fascinatingly real life story that may not be widely known. The story takes place in 1960 and follows a group of agents and officers in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad and security agency Shin Bet as they travel to Argentina after learning that Eichmann who is credited with being the architect of the Holocaust is living in a suburb of Buenos Aires undercover. At the behest of the upper echelon of the Israeli government, the Mossad agent Peter Malkin, played by Golden Globe winner Oscar Isaac, is recruited to form a team that will track the whereabouts of Eichmann and come up with a plan to bring him back to Israel to stand trial for his crimes against the Jewish people during World War II. His team includes several secret operatives, including an anesthesiologist named Hanna, played by Mélanie Laurent best known for her role in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and fellow agent Rossi, played by comedian Nick Kroll. The movie presents a sometimes gripping account of the operatives following Eichmann’s every move and eventually decide to capture him at nighttime very near his home that he shares with his wife and two sons. When several issues arise, Eichmann must remain captive in the Israeli safe house in Argentina until the occasion arises when they can safely transport him out of the country. Throughout his detainment, Eichmann begins to develop somewhat of a rapport with Peter, and they both discuss their personal lives and their experiences during World War II. Eventually, after a internationally televised trial in Israel, Eichmann is finally executed in June 1962 for his horrific crimes against humanity and participation in the killing of over 6 million Jews. Overall, I found it to be an intriguing film highlighting the lengths in which Mossad and other intelligence agencies went to in order to capture Nazis who had escaped to South America; however, I thought it was not tightly executed and the action could have been intensified.

Chappaquiddick

Based on actual testimony and historical records, Chappaquiddick is a compelling glimpse into one of the many tragedies that befell the Kennedy family and effectively portrays the complexities of Senator Ted Kennedy as a result of Jason Clarke’s terrific performance. The film chronicles the horrific defining moment of a young Ted Kennedy, played by Jason Clarke, and his political career: the so-called Chappaquiddick Incident in which a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, played by Kate Mara, died after a car driven by Kennedy was involved in an accident. Attending a party on Chappaquiddick Island near Martha’s Vineyard with the “Boiler Room Girls” who worked for Senator Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign before his assassination, Kennedy becomes close to the 28-year-old Mary Jo discussing his brother’s untimely death before driving her back to a hotel late at night on July 18, 1969. Still under mysterious circumstances, the car veers off a small bridge into a body of water where Mary Jo is trapped and ultimately drowns while Kennedy escapes unharmed. The movie then shifts to its central focus of showing the audience the lengths taken by such a powerful political dynasty as the Kennedy clan and their close allies to cover up the misfortunate incident that would have serious repercussions for Senator Kennedy’s presidential aspirations. Immediately after the wreck, Kennedy enlists the help of his cousin Joe Gargan, played by Ed Helms, and lawyer friend Paul Markham, played by Jim Gaffigan, who both attended that night’s party, to clean up the PR disaster that could lead to criminal charges by the local police department. Later, at the behest of his tough yet very sick father Joe Kennedy, played by Bruce Dern, a group of powerful lawyers are assembled to basically brush off the accident as simply another unfortunate Kennedy tragedy in which Ted Kennedy is not culpable for the death of Mary Jo. Attempting to give a fair balance to the horrific events, the filmmaker presents what Kennedy claimed to have happened as well as the narrative ascertained by the police investigations. Furthermore, Kennedy is vividly depicted as a complicated figure who felt immense guilt over what happened at the same time that he is attempting to put the whole situation in a better light in which he takes liberties with the truth to become the victim and keep his political career intact. Overall, I felt it to be a truly fascinating movie that tries to present an unvarnished account of one of the most consequential occurrences in the Kennedy saga after the assassinations of JFK and his brother Robert: many people may not remember that the beloved Senator Ted Kennedy, at least by many Democrats, was intricately involved in such a tragedy.

The 15:17 to Paris

Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker and actor Clint Eastwood, The 15:17 to Paris is a well-intentioned movie remarkable for its use of the actual people that the true story is based upon but ultimately fails fairly miserably as a result of its poor writing and risky casting choices. The story revolves around a group of three American friends who unexpectedly become heroes while on a European vacation after they prevent a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on August 21, 2015. We first meet Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, and Anthony Sadler as troublesome middle schoolers at a Christian school in California where they become close friends interested in the United States military. The movie fast forwards several years later when the men, all played by themselves, are in their 20s still friends but living separate lives. It primarily focuses on Spencer who decides to join the Air Force in the Pararescue division and Alek who is deployed to Afghanistan as a soldier in the Oregon Army National Guard. In a rather lackluster build-up to the incident, we see all three friends join together on a stereotypical American vacation across Europe filled with drunken nights and sightseeing. The stilted dialogue does not really add much to a greater understanding of the moments leading up to their heroics. Also, the movie sometimes inexplicably switches back and forth between snippets of the action-packed train sequence and the rather mundane activities of their trip. Finally, towards the end, the movie reaches its climax when it details the men boarding a high-speed train from Amsterdam, the interlude as typical passengers, and the remarkable moments when they face off against a radical Islamic terrorist set on killing everyone aboard the train. Spencer makes the quick-fire decision to tackle the terrorist whose gun luckily jams, and a bloody fight ensues between the two men with Spencer sustaining injuries. At the same time, Alek and Anthony along with other brave passengers help to subdue the gunman until the train reaches its next stop where the police can take him into custody. Unquestionably an amazing story of courage, the creative use of the real people in a dramatized motion picture unfortunately backfires and does not really do justice to what happened. Overall, I found it to be a wasted opportunity to pay tribute to three American heroes who undoubtedly saved many lives; therefore, the story would have been better served by a documentary or a more conventional movie with real professional actors.

12 Strong

Based on the 2009 non-fiction book Horse Soldiers written by Doug Stanton, 12 Strong is a fairly typical war movie whose main strength is telling a fascinating true story about one of the first military operations in Afghanistan following the September 11th attacks. It follows a group of twelve United States Army Special Forces soldiers who are sent to Afghanistan on a covert mission known as Task Force Dagger in October 2001 to combat the Taliban harboring the al-Qaeda terrorist group responsible for the deadliest attack on American soil. The group known as Operational Detachment Alpha 595 within the elite 5th Special Forces Group are commanded by Captain Mitch Nelson, played by Chris Hemsworth, on his first leadership role in combat and is tasked with joining Afghan General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Northern Alliance fighters. Their mission is to recapture the Taliban stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif, a Northern Afghan city strategically vital to the Americans in the forthcoming war, and eliminate Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers in the region. Once they arrive in Afghanistan, the American troops, including soldiers played by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and Michael Peña, discover they are outnumbered by the Taliban heavily armored with tanks and rocket launchers. Earning their nickname the Horse Soldiers, the men are surprised to learn they must ride horses into combat due to the rough terrain. As to be expected from a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the film contains several well-coordinated and thrilling action sequences involving the Special Forces on horseback firing machine guns at the relentless Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Overall, despite the talented cast and spectacular scenes of modern warfare, the movie never transcends the generic formula of an action flick as a result of the lack of character development and the bloated runtime. Unfortunately, it does not really do justice to the truly remarkable story of one of the first military responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, an operation that up until recently was classified.

The Post

Directed by Steven Spielberg who won the Oscar for best director for 1994’s Schindler’s List and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, The Post is a terrific film about the importance of journalism and is full of brilliant performances from an all-star cast under the guidance of one of the greatest filmmakers with a well-crafted script. Set in the early 1970s as the Vietnam War became increasingly unpopular, the movie tells the true story of the release of the so-called Pentagon Papers, which documented the failures and cover-ups of the war in Vietnam by the United States government. It is about the fierce competition between The New York Times and the relatively small Washington Post to get the scoop on such consequential classified documents. The plot follows the groundbreaking female publisher and owner of The Washington Post Katharine Graham, played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and the well-respected editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, played by Oscar winner Tom Hanks, as they struggle to raise the newspaper’s national profile as they begin the process of going public to raise funds to keep the paper running. When they catch wind of the Pentagon Papers leaking, they along with their journalists desperately try to get the full report and publish stories about the secret government report that The New York Times has been barred from publishing because of a government injunction. Eventually, the Post journalist Ben Bagdikian, played by Golden Globe nominee Bob Odenkirk, is given thousands of pages of the Pentagon Papers from one of its authors, a government contractor for the Rand Corporation named Daniel Ellsberg, played by Emmy nominee Matthew Rhys. Graham and Bradlee must grapple with the legal implications of publishing confidential government records, which could result in jail time and the newspaper going bankrupt, and the journalistic duty of informing the public in a country with freedom of the press. Although it is a historical snapshot of a crucially important time in journalism, the filmmakers effectively allude to the parallels in today’s society, with the current president of the United States criticizing the free press and calling for the prosecution of leakers. The movie very much reminds me of the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, perhaps the greatest movie ever made about journalists, by focusing on the investigative reporting at The Washington Post during the Nixon era. Both films powerfully shed light on the significance that journalism has on holding the American government and president accountable for their actions. A spiritual prequel to the Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman movie in which the story takes place almost immediately after the Pentagon Papers, Spielberg’s work is much more about the leadership at The Washington Post and its conflict with the judicial system. Overall, I found The Post to be one of the most relevant movies made about America’s current political and journalistic environment and stands by itself as an excellent movie due to its marvelous ensemble cast with almost too many great actors to name directed by the great Steven Spielberg.