Review: The First

Sean Penn in The First

The First, a Hulu original series, was advertised and promoted as a heroic space adventure in the style of The Right Stuff. Astronauts in space suits and talk about a mission to Mars were in the posters and teasers. That isn’t what this story is about. The marketing is misleading.

My summary of the story is this: heroes are human, too. The dreamers, the engineers, the astronauts, the scientists – all those very smart people working on space travel are just people. People with families, issues, problems, kids, rage, grief, and guilt.

The First is about the families, issues, problems, kids, rage, grief, and guilt of the people who work to put humans in space. We make heroes of such people. They are heroes, but they are humans first.

Natascha McElhone in The First
Laz runs the whole program

Natascha McElhone plays Laz Ingram, the head of the Mars program. In the first episode a rocket takes off for Mars and explodes in front of the world, just like the Challenger did. Five people died. The fight to keep the program going was Laz’s mission afterwards. She talked to NASA people – represented mostly by D.W. Moffett as Bob Cordine. She talked to senators, the President, reporters. She had to convince them all to keep going, try again, spend the millions.

The episode “Collisions” where Laz opens up to a reporter played by Bill Camp was the most revealing of her background and motivations, although we see into her personal life in almost every episode.

Sean Penn in The First
The astronaut

Sean Penn played the astronaut Tom Hagerty. He’d made it to the moon and back, and was the off-again on-again commander of the Mars mission. He wasn’t on the rocket that exploded. Laz wanted him to take over again as commander when they made the second attempt.

LisaGay Hamilton in The First
It shoulda been me in charge

LisaGay Hamilton plays astronaut Kayla Price. If Tom Hagerty stayed out of the way, she would have been the commander. Kayla was a good soldier, a good team player. But internally she struggled with all the obstacles she faced as a queer woman of color. (Her wife was played by Tracie Thoms.) She would be on the mission as second in command, and it rankled a bit.

I’ve seen LisaGay Hamilton in a great many things, but never in such a major part. It’s about time!

James Ransone and Hannah Ware in The First
Who is the better choice?

The choice between Nick Fletcher (James Ransone) and Sadie Hewitt (Hannah Ware) for the mission was a sore point between Tom and Kayla. Tom wanted Nick, so Kayla had to agree with his choice. It was painful watching Sadie trying to teach Nick what she knew so he could do the things she wouldn’t be there to do.

Even though Nick was the one going on the mission, the story focused on Sadie, her marriage, and her husband’s desire for children. Having a baby isn’t high on your priority list when all you want in the world is to go into space. She became the alternate choice, and did go in the end.

Matteo Vega (Rey Lucas) was the fourth astronaut. His personal story was barely examined. The fifth astronaut was Aiko Hakari (Keiko Agena). We learned little about her personally except that her mother was suffering from dementia. Near the end, when everyone was saying their goodbyes, she put her mother in a home, leaving her husband to care for just their sons in her absence.

Melissa George and Anna Jacoby-Heron The First
Mother and daughter in happier times

Tom Hagarty’s story was the most intimately explored. His wife (Melissa George) committed suicide about 3 years ago. Since then, his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron) struggled. She went the drug route, and Tom is frequently pulled away from training to take her to rehab or get her out of the hospital.

Denise is a talented artist. Her mother was a tattoo artist, but Denise went big with charcoal and oils. We see a lot of flashbacks of Tom, Denise and Diane Hagerty together as Denise was growing up.

As the second launch date grew closer and closer, each of the individuals had to make peace with the people around them they loved and would be leaving behind. If the mission was successful, they would be home in about 2 1/2 years. If it wasn’t, they would die in space or on Mars.

The courage and commitment of each individual who chose to go in spite of the odds is what made them heroic. They were insanely brave, or bravely foolish, in their striving to launch the human race onto new planets.

The music was wonderful. The cinematography was often stunning. Gorgeous images, brilliantly framed shots. Adam Stone was the director of photography. He has an eye for the beautiful and unique and mysterious.

In tech terms, the story is set about 10 years in the future. There’s a lot of talking to devices, including cars. There are some glasses that look like normal glasses but put you into virtual reality.  A phone is a tiny bud in the ear that works on voice commands. AI is more advanced. However, the tech toys and marvels are not the focus of the series. The First isn’t whiz bang sci fi – it is human nature.

The space lovers finally get the reward of some whiz bang space flight material in the final episode. We are right back where we were at the beginning, with the world watching a rocket blast off. Only this time they made it into orbit, made it out of the earth’s pull and on the way to Mars.

Something I thought was sloppy was the way scenes snapped to black in spots where you’d expect ads to be inserted. It was like someone with a dull razor blade and a tangled roll of tape created the breaks. I know it isn’t done with razor blades and tape in this day and age, but that’s what it looked like.

There were some strange moments in The First. Some of the symbolism was a bit much, to my mind. Cicadas. Reflections. A ton of sunsets/sunrises. There was someone tinkering in a shed with bits of electronics and old rotary phones in every episode. That someone was never quite revealed but often offered a narration of sorts in a soft southern accent.

The First is an intimate story about human relationships. If you go into it expected that and not a story about space travel, you’ll probably enjoy it. The acting was excellent, the dialog was outstanding.

Beau Willimon created and co-wrote The First. Exactly half the episodes were directed by women: Deniz Gamze Ergüven and Agnieszka Holland.

Have you seen this series on Hulu? What did you think about it?

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