First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

There’s an escalator at the Scotiabank Theatre, the venue where just about all of the TIFF press and industry screenings are held, that’s notorious for breaking down. It goes several stories up at a steep angle, like the long slope of a particularly extreme rollercoaster, and its habit of grinding to a halt (of becoming stairs, to paraphrase Mitch Hedberg) is a source of running jokes among those who spend a good portion of this week-and-change making that long climb. Turns out the damn thing is actually working fine this year, in defiance of tradition and my own general feeling that, five days into fest, I’m walking on one that’s running in reverse, constantly moving but never getting anywhere. Here in Toronto, the number of interesting movies to see always eclipses the time you have to write about them, and yours truly is truly behind. (Thoughts on Bradley Cooper’s rapturously received A Star Is Born, Christian Petzold’s terrific Transit, and others are still on the way, I can almost promise.)

Maybe I’m torturing the metaphor (an occupational habit of making your living looking for secret meaning in everything you watch), but I thought, briefly, of that malfunctioning escalator—and the rewards offered at the top of it, the prizes waiting in darkened auditoriums just beyond its summit—during yesterday’s TIFF IMAX screening of First Man (Grade: A-), the fascinating new Neil Armstrong biopic by La La Land director Damien Chazelle. Is there a working filmmaker more obsessed with gain through pain? Here, the man who made Whiplash looks at Armstrong, the face of NASA and the first man to walk on the moon, and finds in his famous accomplishments another study of punishing pursuit, of triumph achieved only through single-minded commitment and endurance.

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It’s a theme struck multiple times throughout First Man, beginning with the opening scene. We meet Armstrong (Chazelle’s La La Land star Ryan Gosling) in the cockpit of a jet, risking his life to hit new altitudes and reach the Earth’s atmosphere. For one brief, blissful moment, we get to savor along with him the majestic view from the top. Then the aircraft seizes up, and it’s back to the struggle; the payoff of his effort is so fleeting that one wonders if it the effort itself isn’t the real motivator—an idea echoed by televised footage of John F. Kennedy, delivering a de facto thesis statement in his insistence that going to space is worth doing “not because [it’s] easy but because [it’s] hard.” Written by Josh Singer, the procedural pro who won an Oscar for Spotlight, First Man takes us through a significant eight years in Armstrong’s life, from getting hired at NASA to taking that one small step for mankind, focusing both on the man’s grueling, sometimes life-risking work and his strained relationship with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and two young sons.

First Man
Photo: Universal Pictires

The movie is a stylistic pivot for the recent Best Director winner, who moves from the glorious backlot artifice of La La Land to an often handheld, at-times-literal nuts-and-bolts realism. And yet First Man, whose studious attention to detail makes Apollo 13 look like Armageddon, is as immersive and even expressive an assault on the senses as the music movies its maker made before it. Chazelle puts us right inside the claustrophobic, treacherously fallible tin can with the astronauts, aligning our perspective with theirs by narrowing our vantage on the action (we often see the boundless wonder of space only through slits and narrow windows) and bombarding us with the shrieking of metal within their orbiting sensory deprivation tank. Has a movie ever made space travel, and even training for space travel, look so dangerous? And has a portrait of NASA ever downplayed the romantic grandeur of the work this much? (There’s a Right Stuff walk-to-the-launchpad moment that’s hushed and even ominous, filtering out everything but the men’s laser focus.)

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The distinction here, really, is that First Man looks at Apollo almost entirely through the eyes (and by extension, psychology) of its real-life icon. That’s the magic of the movie, which could easily and just as accurately be called First Person instead: Chazelle has made a grippingly nitty-gritty procedural that sees the space race as a window into Armstrong’s unknowable mind, an inner space as mysterious as the outer one he blasts himself into. Gosling, everyone’s favorite blue-eyed cyborg heartthrob, is a great choice for Chazelle’s conception of Armstrong as a fundamentally distant, interior man; he’s the American hero you’ll never really know. The script’s most conventional choice is linking both his superhuman drive and his emotional remove to the death of his daughter—call it a variation on Gravity’s gravitational pull to pop psychology. But First Man transcends any pat therapeutic arc, all while speeding towards an ending that’s as cathartic as La La Land’s or Whiplash’s, just with great silence instead of big-band music communicating all the feelings. By the finale, there are no cutaways to Houston, no montages of the whole world watching from down below. For a few beautiful minutes, it’s just Neil, the majesty of the galaxy, and the thoughts the film leaves unsaid.

High Life
Photo: Toronto International Film Festival

If First Man finds Chazelle rocketing into a new creative frontier, the festival’s other major space trek relocates its own visionary director back into her wheelhouse. In other words, High Life (Grade: B) is a return to elliptical form for Claire Denis, whose last movie, the oddball romantic comedy Let The Sunshine In, misplaced much of what makes the French filmmaker’s work so special, from her sensual, mysterious editing rhythms to her sometimes purely visual storytelling techniques. All of that is present and accounted for again in Denis’ English-language debut, which gradually reveals itself to be her disquieting, transgressive spin on the Solaris school of heady space odysseys. (There are other influences, of course. The first few images are straight out of Philip Kaufman’s masterful Invasion Of The Body Snatchers remake.)

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Robert Pattinson, who’s probably never dragged his fans into stranger territory, stars as an astronaut raising a baby on a lonely spacecraft drifting through the cosmos. Playing tantalizingly with the timeline (another hallmark of the director’s best work), Denis eventually reveals Pattinson’s harried single father to be one of a whole group of death-row inmates granted reprieve in the form of a potential suicide mission involving the galaxy’s closest black hole. But space, or perhaps just life in confinement, does strange things to the brain, and soon the lone authority figure aboard, a doctor played by Juliette Binoche, is conducting fertility experiments on the inmates (a motley international ensemble that includes Mia Goth, Everyone Else’s Lars Eidinger, and Andre “3,000” Benjamin).

High Life, perhaps even more so than the vampire tone poem Trouble Every Day, pushes Denis’ fascination with flesh into the body-horror realm; if she’s always been a kindred spirit to David Cronenberg, the connection has never been clearer than it is this time, as Denis revels in the clinical spaces of the ship (washed in warm oranges and electric blues) and splashes around in several varieties of human fluid. It was too much for some of the audience at last night’s world-premiere screening; folks fled the theater in waves, repulsed or confounded by the movie’s sometimes shocking transgressions, including an automated sex scene that’s among Denis’ weirder, more memorable individual images. As drama, High Life is at best uneven: The performances are all over the map—that’s true of Binoche’s work alone, as she oscillates from flatness to a desperate, carnal desire—and this Denis diehard would need another viewing or two to decide if the film is saying anything particularly profound about human connection. But in terms of mood, cosmetics, and rhythm, it’s a worthy addition to the great filmmaker’s canon. I was especially taken with its flexible, downright nonsensical physics (airlocks can be opened like normal doors and things plummet downwards through space as though it had its own gravity) and tech straight out of an ’80s sci-fi movie. It’s the polar opposite of First Man’s scientific accuracy, and just as riveting.