Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, a Steve Bannon doc and Dev Patel in a solid retelling of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
My day five schedule:
9am – “First Man” (dir. Damien Chazelle), Highlight
A number of films at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, as it draws to a close, have been let down by a strange phenomenon rarely encountered by Hollywood’s usual output: reality.
Jason Reitman’s highly anticipated “The Front Runner”, starring Hugh Jackman as disgraced 1980s presidential candidate Gary Hart, was reduced by an anticlimactic, but truthful, final third. “Beautiful Boy”, too, the tale of young drug addiction with Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carrel, concludes on an optimistic, if dull, note: life goes on.
This is likely the product of a backlash against the quasi-historical fare from writers such as Peter Morgan (“Rush”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”), whose recent works have been beloved by audiences and Academy voters but scrutinised by historians and, often enough, the individuals at hand.
In enters Josh Singer, the young writer of “Spotlight” and now Damien Chazelle’s characteristic spectacle “First Man”, which tells the story of Neil Armstrong and the first moon landing. Singer generally averts the fate of boring truth incurred by the above films but, much like Apollo 11, it’s a close one.
Ryan Gosling is an odd choice for Armstrong, and he brings to the role a performance odder still. Shaking off the boyish charm that made his early career – I can only assume this is intentional – he brings a tablespoon too little seasoning to an already vegetarian role. Neil Armstrong was, it seems, quite the ordinary father for a 1960s American family; few fireworks, fewer interesting conversations. Armstrong spends most of the film scowling and looking intensely, much like Tom Hardy’s near-faceless RAF pilot in “Dunkirk”. For a medium-sized role in an ensemble piece that can pass; we can expect more from a leading man in a film, as is this, of such scale.
Though Gosling and Singer may both be in line for some blame, the standout performances in “First Man” are Clare Foy as Janet Shearon, Neil’s wife, and Damien Chazelle as director. Foy does righteous indignation better than anyone else in Hollywood; Chazelle does most things better than anyone else in Hollywood. The first three minutes of “First Man” are one hell of an opening number and, like “La La Land’s” ‘Another Day of Sun’, only a preview of what’s to come.
For such as well-known story, moreover, Chazelle does remarkably well in convincing us that Neil Armstrong and NASA might not pull this one off. And if that’s the central challenge of this film, “First Man” lands it comfortably.
12pm – “American Dharma” (dir. Errol Morris), Lowlife
Full disclosure: I did not plan, or in fact intend, to see this movie. I knew what to expect from “Hotel Mumbai” afterwards (I was right by the way) and a life-affirming road trip movie featuring Dev Patel traveling around India (“The Wedding Guest”) seemed a good pre-emptor. But screen 13 was really screen 12 and so I didn’t watch “The Wedding Guest”. “American Dharma” is actually a film by the Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, about Steve Bannon and ends – spoiler alert – with Trump’s former strategist predicting the incoming revolution to bring down American civil society as it currently exists. Heavy stuff. You don’t need to watch it and, fingers crossed, you won’t have to.
3pm – “Hotel Mumbai” (dir. Anthony Maras), Sensitive thriller
The 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, which targeted the main train station, dozens of cafes and, most fatally, the luxury Taj Hotel, has already been the subject of much debate and dramatisation. A 2013 Indian retelling, “The Attacks of 26/11”, was widely criticised for exploiting the tragedy; it current sits with 0% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Not Anthony Maras’s version, which stars an impressive ensemble including Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Nazanin Boniadi and Anupam Kher. “Hotel Mumbai” is unique for a number of reasons, including the brutality of its reconstructions and the layers it offers its militant antagonists, rare for a Hollywood blockbuster centred around an act of terrorism. Most notably, however, it carries a much-needed portrayal of universal cooperation in the face of tragedy and trauma. The bullets didn’t discriminate between race, religion or gender; nor did the heroic hotel staff, local police force or the Special Forces. Who wants to tell Steve Bannon?
7pm- “The Wild Pear Tree” (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Grand in scale and length
“The Wild Pear Tree”, though packed with interesting if disjointed ideas, was disappointingly predictable for a Turkish existential family drama. Parts of the film are excellent and others are middling – you can fit both quite easily in three hours. Rock-solid performances from virtually the whole cast and ingenuity from writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan aren’t enough to save this becoming, at times, as stale as a cheap baklava at the end of a summer’s day. Again, bedtime.