First Man is Damien Chazelle’s latest directorial effort. Just like his previous works, Whiplash and La La Land, this too is marked as an academy award contender. It has all the right ingredients for it. It is a biopic; it is also a period piece. It is heavy with the drama, both on a personal and on a historical scale, and it has plenty of the right actors in the right places for the critics to eat it up. Also, the fact that the director is the newest wunderkind in Hollywood just makes things easier. I mean Chazelle is only 33 at this point, but he already has an Oscar for directing and 2 other nominations for screenplay, one for original and on for adapted. This story could not have been made more for award consideration. It is also has annoyed the fuck out of me.
This is, yet again, an instance, where I and the critics walk away with totally different appreciation of the movie that we just saw. Based on the current Rotten Tomatoes score, 9 out 10 critics have liked this movie. I am the lonely 10th schmuck that doesn’t gets it. This movie just does not compile together as it should. I understand the idea behind it and why it has looked so promising on paper. You take one of the biggest human achievements ever, you find its main protagonist and you film his journey to reach that achievement, but you focus on his private struggles and tribulations instead of the grand story, all the small sacrifices he had to make to get where he was going. It is, without a doubt a great premise. But it just doesn’t work here, and the reason for it is remarkably simple. Neil Armstrong, despite of his multiple remarkable traits and merits, is a boring person. As far as I can tell, the filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to make everything as authentic as possible. If they succeeded, that means that Armstrong had the charisma of a dried potato, which is bad if you want to build an entire movie on his shoulders, instead on the events. Because everything that was related in this movie to the Gemini and Apollo space programs was great. Those elements were really exciting. But they only account for about 40% of the movie. Everything else is an intimate look into the Armstrong household and the relationship between Neil and Janet. They live in a small housing community, filled with the families of the people working in the space program. So most of the talk is either shop talk, or shop related talk or just plain household drama. The men are pilots/engineers and the women are housewives. You can just imagine how diversified the talking points can be in an environment like that. Also, there are a lot of kids around and all they do is run around and scream and shout. I know that this is actually an accurate depiction of how things were back then, but still, it drove me up the frickin’ walls. Thank God for the occasional funeral every now and then. Basically, to focus on the man instead of the mission was a choice the result of which did not live up to expectations. Not with this execution, at least.
Speaking of execution, I also have an ax to grind with the way this movie was shot. There was a lot of talk on how during the lunar landing the camera is focusing on Ryan Goslings face instead of the actual landing and how the movie does not show how the flag was planted on the moon. I could not care less about any of this. BUT, when we are on the ground, on earth, which is 95% of the movie, for whatever reason, the film makers decided to go with hand held cameras. The cameramen are either unable to keep the cameras steady or they were going for some 60’s documentary film style of shooting, which sounds about right given the time period the story unfolds in, but it looks like something I shoot with my camera over the weekend. Watching a close-up always moving on the big screen, while the character was clearly still in its surroundings, was horrible. I almost got sea-sick.
As far as the acting goes, I cannot have complaints there. Ryan Goslings brings another one of his stoic performances as Neil Armstrong, which I am guessing is fitting. Claire Foy, as his wife Janet, is a powerhouse. I know this because she has annoyed me the most as a character, so she, as an actress, managed to punch through the weak script. Jason Clarke and Corey Stoll are also memorable in their roles. Kyle Chandler and Ciarán Hinds are in this movie too, but just long enough to recognize their faces, otherwise they are totally underused. I saw cameos longer than their screen time here.
Overall, First Man, is an ambitious project, that had an original concept and all the right ingredients to become an incredible, epic movie, a classic. Except, it didn’t. I choose Apollo 13 over this on any given day of the week.