In what was an undoubted celebration of its 75th anniversary, the Venice Film Festival began its 11-day Autumn run on Wednesday evening with a high adventure drama, Damien Chazelle’s First Man – in which Ryan Gosling essays Neil Armstrong. Gosling, as the first man to land on the moon in July 1969, was cheered on the Red Carpet as he walked in for the movie's world premiere. Along with him were several actors like Emma Stone, Joaquin Phoenix and Lady Gaga, and they made up one of the Festival’s most star-studded opening nights in recent years.
Interestingly, a string of adventure films have kick started the Festival in the past few years, and these included Gravity (with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock getting lost in space), Everest (about a tragedy on the mountain) and so on. For Chazelle and Gosling this is their second time together at Venice, having been here earlier in 2016 with La La Land, which went on to win several Oscars in 2017.
Absolutely different from La La Land, which was a bitter-sweet romantic musical, First Man is an odyssey into the unknown, captured most ravishingly through arresting visuals. The story of the first man to set foot on the moon on July 20 1969 may not offer any surprises, but the director takes us through an emotional journey where a father and husband is wracked by guilt. Armstrong was the American Adam, as one writer described him, who went to the moon, saw it in all its splendorous beauty, came back without a mishap and withdrew from public life, maybe because he was shattered to see his country and the rest of the world lose interest in space exploits.
Unfortunately, Chazelle while tracing the events leading up to the Apollo 11's mission to the moon, does not tell us anything about Armstrong’s life after the historic landing. Many of us know about this space mission, but not many are aware of what his life was after the dangerous voyage was over.
At a press conference immediately after First Man was screened on Wednesday morning, Gosling in an apparent explanation for to why Chazelle decided to end the film with the moon landing said: "I don't think Armstrong saw himself as an American hero. Quite the opposite. Neil was someone who was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts...the way we made the movie was to honour the way Neil viewed himself.” In any case, the landing was not seen as an American achievement, but as a human achievement, and we chose to show it that way”.
With First Man out of the way, the oldest Film Festival in the world is all geared up to screen a whole lot of hotly anticipated movies including including Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical Roma, shot in black and white; Yorgos Lanthimos’ offbeat costumer, The Favourite; Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, starring himself and Lady Gaga in her big-screen debut; and Jacques Audiard’s Oregon-set Western, The Sisters Brothers, in which Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play two notorious assassins.
While the Festival's Artistic Director, Alberto Barbera, is being praised for getting hold of a strong lineup this year, after a rather quiet Cannes in May, he has also been criticised for choosing just one film by a woman helmer, a period thriller called The Nightingale by Jennifer Kent from Australia.
At the jury Press conference, also on Wednesday, the President of the jury, Guillermo del Toro (the Mexican auteur whose Venice 2017 player, The Shape of Water, clinched 13 Oscar nods and won several) sounded passionate when he quipped: “I think the goal has to be 50-50 by 2020,” he said, adding: “If it’s 50-50 by 2019, that’s even better.”
But a quota system can only be defeating. As Barbera said, “I picked up films based on quality, not on gender”. I think he was being perfectly logical and practical.
(Author, commentator and movie critic Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Venice Film Festival for over 15 years)