October seems to have completely defied the trends of the months that preceded it. While I struggled to see more than one film in theaters in both August and September, October has had so many interesting releases that I barely know where to start. This weekend, I managed to see two acclaimed films in theaters: First Man and The Hate U Give. At home, I watched the classic Western film Giant, which is popularly considered one of the best films of the fifties.
First Man by Damien Chazelle (2018)
In the year 1961, NASA civilian test pilot Neil Armstrong is grounded following a series of unsuccessful X-15 flights. Deciding to take a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he then applies to NASA Astronaut Group 2 and is quickly accepted. There, he befriends fellow test pilots Elliot See and Ed White. Following the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, four years prior, NASA is dead-set on getting a leg up in the space race. While Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human being to venture into space in 1961, NASA aims to redefine the race by launching a manned spacecraft to the surface of the Earth’s moon. During training, Deke Slayton impresses upon the astronauts the importance of their mission, though none of them knew just how much their actions would change the shape of history forever.
Though I had no idea going into it, First Man would end up being the second film of Damien Chazelle’s I had seen. The first was La La Land, the hit 2016 musical that was one of the highest-grossing films of its time. It was also notable for being christened 2016’s Picture of the Year for an entire ten seconds before the error was corrected and given to its rightful owner, Moonlight. As it was easily A24’s best release so far, I feel the better picture won. Even so, La La Land was itself a great film, and it should have given me a good indication as to how First Man would turn out.
I say this because First Man was well worth watching in theaters. Anybody with even a cursory knowledge of twentieth century history knows of the legendary Apollo 11 mission that culminated in astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. What is often forgotten is the sheer bravery and determination these astronauts needed to see this mission through to the end.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges Mr. Chazelle had going into First Man was making a suspenseful film when every single audience member knows the outcome. To us, there’s nothing to consider; Neil Armstrong was the first man to touch down on the surface of the moon because that’s what is written in the history books. Therefore, this mission has a 100% chance of succeeding. Obviously, that’s not the reality these people were contemplating as they were carrying out their mission. To them, Apollo 11 could have ended in a complete disaster at any moment for any reason. The potential consequences for this mission are brilliantly showcased throughout the film. It makes sure to highlight the tragedy of the Apollo 1, the shuttle that exploded as a result of an electrical fire during a launch rehearsal test, killing all three personnel onboard: Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chaffee. In fact, quite a lot of the characters introduced early on don’t make it to the end of the film.
It’s also interesting seeing how these failures affected the public psyche. Chanting protesters against the Vietnam War can be heard in the background at one point. These two events coincided with each other and serve as odd, yet fitting parallels to each other. To these protesters, sending people to die in a war they felt the United States had no business being a part of was no different than sending astronauts to space to die in an attempt to one-up the Soviet Union. The fateful moment, which is watched by hundreds of millions of people, is ultimately celebrated, but up until that moment, it was considered a highly foolish operation.
Furthermore, Ryan Gosling’s performance as Neil Armstrong is absolutely amazing. He manages to capture the human side of someone most people only know as a historical figure. You get a sense of how difficult it is to maintain a relationship in such a life-consuming job. Had things gone the least bit differently, he could’ve ended up on that ill-fated Apollo 1 test run. The rest of the cast is excellent as well from Claire Foy as Janet Shearon – Neil Armstrong’s wife – to Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin. This interpretation of Aldrin is quite interesting, portraying him as that kind of person everyone knows who means well despite having zero sense of tact for even the most serious situations.
In many ways, I feel First Man comes across as a combination of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. It’s like Apollo 13 in that we’re following the trials and tribulations of a group of astronauts who are about to embark on a dangerous journey. Meanwhile, the film casting space itself as the de facto antagonist is highly reminiscent of Gravity. One wonders why space-themed horror films such as Life even bother attempting to introduce alien antagonists when space itself manages to be sufficiently frightening. Because of this, that the Apollo 11 mission has a 100% success rate isn’t what you’re going to be thinking as you’re watching this film; you will feel the sense of doubt and dread the figures felt. Watching the pieces fall into place is quite something, and this remarkably difficult accomplishment deserves to be seen for yourself.
The Hate U Give by George Tillman Jr. (2018)
Starr Carter is a 16-year-old girl who lives in the neighborhood of Garden Heights. It’s a poor neighborhood with a high population of African-American citizens. She herself attends an affluent private school known as Williamson Prep. She has two close friends: Hailey Grant and Maya Yang. She also has a white boyfriend named Chris. One night, Starr attends a block party with a childhood friend, Khalil. The party is eventually broken up when shots begin to ring. On the way home, they are stopped by a white police officer. He has Khalil exit the car. While he is outside of the car, Khalil reaches into the door to grab a hairbrush. The officer shoots Khalil three times, ending his life. Khalil’s death becomes a national news story, with the media portraying the deceased as a gang banger and portraying the officer in a sympathetic light.
Whether it’s Blindspotting or BlacKkKlansman, 2018 has had no shortage of films dealing with race relations. Now, I have to admit I’ve remarked in the past that the 2010s has not been a particularly great decade for satire, but in all honesty, I think that has more to do with my stance on science fiction in the 2010s (which I sometimes call the Dark Age of Science Fiction) because there is an uncomfortable amount of overlap. Works that deal with race relations, on the other hand, have actually been fairly solid as of late. Blindspotting is a textbook example of how to properly address these issues, with director Carlos López Estrada saying what he wanted to say without compromising his story’s ability to be a story. It’s to the point where the disappointing BlacKkKlansman ended up being an isolated incident – and even then, it was still mostly good; it’s just that certain ham-fisted lines, various historical inaccuracies, and a sloppy ending ensured I could not award it a passing grade.
That brings us to The Hate U Give. Named after an acronym dubbed by famed rapper Tupac Shakur, I ended up getting a lot of trailers for this film. In fact, at one point, I actually mistook it for the trailer for Blindspotting. This is because both trailers depict an unarmed African-American being shot by an officer in plain view of the protagonist, traumatizing them deeply. I enjoyed Blindspotting, and I was definitely going to check out The Hate U Give. It should also be noted that prior to its release, this film was bombarded with negative fan reviews on both Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb. This is one of the few times I even saw the backlash leak into real life; the man at the ticket counter decided to be cross when I told him what I wanted to see, claiming if it were called “The Love You Give”, people wouldn’t have been interested in seeing it (at that moment, I thought to myself “Do you remember when you lost your passion for this job?”). Never mind the fact that “The Love You Give” would be a great name for a biographical film about The Beatles.
Now, 2018 has also been an interesting year in that critics and the general audience have rarely seen eye-to-eye. As if that wasn’t enough, when The Hate U Give was finally released, distributors decided that after promoting it extensively, initially giving it a limited release was the correct course of action. It is because of these factors that I feel The Hate U Give manages to be an amalgamation of every trend in 2018 when it comes to films. It deals with heavy subjects, is beloved by critics, is disliked by a particularly cacophonous vocal minority, and managed to fall victim to the distributors’ inexplicable “let’s not bother releasing a critically acclaimed film to a wide audience during its first weeks because… because” mentality. After all of that setup and finally being able to see it for myself, I can say this particular instance of critics and fans clashing is a clear victory for the former, though in all fairness, I felt the result of this particular bout was a foregone conclusion.
The Hate U Give was originally a novel written by one Angie Thomas, which was inspired by the real-life shooting of Oscar Grant in January of 2009. Ms. Thomas originally conceived it as a short story for her senior project in Belhaven University’s creative writing program before eventually expanding it into a book. The story manages to successfully get across how frustrating it is for the African-American community whenever an innocent person is murdered by the police |only for the law enforcement to face no significant repercussions|. Even keeping this in mind, one quote of hers in particular stood out to me.
“I wanted to make sure I approached it not just in anger, but with love even.”
This single factor right is what a lot of these satirical works have been lacking all along: empathy. The inherent problem with the typical 2010s approach to satire is that it’s basically the creator metaphorically beating their audience with a baseball bat until they begin espousing the same viewpoints out of fear or anger. In doing so, they often fail to make a strong case as to why they’re right. Ms. Thomas’s approach, on the other hand, empathizes with the audience – regardless of their backgrounds. It makes a reasonable person want to hear her out rather than get caught up in the anger and frustration that led to many of these societal problems in the first place. For his part, Mr. Tillman managed to translate that aspect perfectly.
Helping him accomplish this mission is the solid cast he had to work with. The last time I saw Amandla Stenberg in a film was when she portrayed Rue in The Hunger Games. It wouldn’t be until after I began researching the film for this feature that I realized they were the same person. This is easily her best performance so far, bringing this character to life. She’s smart, funny, charming, but also possesses an iron will that is thoroughly tested as the story progresses. Her performance even reminded me a bit of Elsie Fisher’s in Eighth Grade in how she presents herself as a timid person when in school, though her reasons for doing so are far different. In a lot of ways, it is very much is an interpersonal teen drama hidden in there along with the heavy issues.
In fact, the protagonists of those two films deal with their social circles in the exact opposite ways. Kayla Day didn’t have much of a social circle to begin with and ends her film with an additional friend. While Starr starts off with a sizable group of friends, she ends up ditching one of them |– Hailey, specifically. As the film goes on, the more she is revealed to be genuinely racist. It’s interesting because her brand of racism isn’t the weapons-grade variety typically associated with the far-right; it’s the kind that many racists resort to in an attempt to appear perfectly normal. At first, her comments come across as misguided attempts at being friendly. However, what sets her apart from someone who innocently makes these mistakes is that when she’s confronted with her bad behavior, she actively refuses to improve herself. It makes Starr and Maya putting her in her place all the more satisfying, as I’m sure she is the type of person many people have had to deal with|.
More than anything, what I enjoyed about this film is how much nuance there is to these themes. Though the police department certainly forms an antagonistic force, they’re not the only obstacle Starr must deal with. After testifying on television, her words attract the attention of the King Lords, the local gang who used to count Starr’s father as one of their members. King, the gang’s leader, begins intimidating Starr and her family. In fact, Starr had lost a childhood friend many years before the events of the film – not to the police, but to a gang member in drive-by shooting. This goes to demonstrate just how difficult things are in the neighborhood even taking the police out of the equation.
All in all, The Hate U Give stands out as one of the best films of 2018. It doesn’t shy away from its themes, but it has actual heart to it. It can be surprisingly funny at times, yet it certainly knows when to put on a serious face. It covers a lot of ground, and you will be rooting for the leads every step of the way. If the opportunity to watch this film ever presents itself, take it.
Giant by George Stevens (1956)
Jordan “Bick” Benedict Jr. is a wealthy rancher from Texas. One day, he travels to Maryland to buy a horse. There, he meets and falls in love with socialite Leslie Lynnton. After courting her, the two of them enter a whirlwind romance and end up getting married. They return to Texas shortly thereafter to begin their life together on the family ranch. The household is run by Luz, Bick’s older sister. While there, the Leslie has the opportunity to meet Jett Rink, a local handyman. Jeff becomes infatuated with Leslie, though during a ride with him, she discovers just how poor the conditions are for the local Mexican workers. She tends to one of the children, Angel Obregon II, and asks Bick to take steps to improve their conditions. Things become even more complicated when Jett, whom Bick despises, refuses to sell the land he’s interested in purchasing. The discovery Jett will make on his property will alter the fate of himself and the Benedict family in the decades to come.
Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Giant going into it other than hearing that it was an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel of the same name. Upon hearing it was a western, I assumed it would be a typical action-packed example stretched out to over three hours. In reality, it’s more accurate to describe it as a slice-of-life story that spans multiple decades. I was even taken aback when I learned the film starts in the 1920s. I can certainly say it wasn’t the film I thought it would be, but I’m glad I saw it through to the end because it is a masterpiece.
Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor are unforgettable as Mr. and Mrs. Benedict. The director does an excellent job portraying the ups and downs of their relationship over the years. They start the film madly in love with each other, yet even when the metaphorical honeymoon phase is over and they begin bickering more often, they find ways to deal with each other and move on as a couple.
And of course, it’s impossible to talk about this film without mentioning James Dean. He only starred in three Hollywood films before his untimely death in 1955; he wouldn’t live to see this film’s release. I was interesting in seeing all three of them for the longest time because a vocal faction of cinephiles will tell you this was his best performance. His most famous role in Rebel Without a Cause had him play the archetypical troubled teen for which he is the most well-known. As such, it is quite something seeing him in a role like this. From the beginning, it’s clear that Bick has little respect for Jett, and when the latter strikes oil and becomes a tycoon, it only serves to infuriate the former further. Watching him go from his modest handyman lifestyle to the life of luxury |only for him to make a drunken fool out of himself at a major event| is quite something. All three leads have incredible arcs to them, and the director makes excellent use of every single minute. It’s one of the few films I can think of that’s over three hours long and there’s not a single frame that should have been left on the cutting room floor.
What I particularly admire about this film is how it deals with anti-Hispanic discrimination in the early twentieth century. In the fifties, it was quite rare for a film to tackle such a subject. Many Hollywood films at the time in a similar situation would romanticize the land in which it takes place, but Giant had the courage to show the bad aspects of Texas alongside its positive ones. Interestingly, it was not well-received in Mexico at the time because the citizens felt it had a lack of understanding of the subject. Years later, film scholars would begin praising the film for having a diverse range of Latin-American characters, who served much more of a role than simply being the token Mexicans.
It’s especially interesting seeing the Benedicts’ relation to these characters. While Leslie is civil to them from the beginning, Bick is certainly a product of his time when it comes to race relations. |Even when his son marries a Mexican woman, his old tendencies don’t die out immediately.| Nonetheless, though trace amounts of his old viewpoints remain by the time the credits roll, he is able to get over the worst aspects of his prejudice, culminating in two incredible moments. |The first is when Angel, the very boy Leslie helped at the beginning of the film is killed in World War II. Bick, who expressed admiration for Angel by that time, presents the Texas state flag from the display case to his parents. The second is when he gets in a fistfight with a racist diner owner who tries to chase a Mexican family out of his business. Bick puts up a good fight despite losing, and Leslie says he was her hero for the first time.|
If you believed the Academy snubbing excellent films of their top honor was a new thing, think again. Fifteen years after failing to recognize the game-changer that was Citizen Kane, the Academy demonstrated that they did not learn their lesson when they passed up Giant in favor of Around the World in 80 Days for their highly desired “Picture of the Year” award. This was especially odd given that George Stevens won the award for “Best Director”, though his film so beautifully shot that his victory was all-but-guaranteed. It seems impossible to fathom these days given that Giant is considered one of the best films of the fifties while Around the World in 80 Days is often thought of as one of the worst films to have ever won the award. However, like Citizen Kane before it, Giant gained a strong critical following that overshadowed the fact that it lost the Academy’s most prestigious award. Similar to my stance on Citizen Kane, Giant is an essential watch for anyone who fancies themselves a cinephile. If you haven’t watched that many older films or films of this length, this is a case in which I recommend grabbing the bull by the horns and diving right in – you will not be disappointed.