Movie Review: “First Man” (2018)

Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” has some of the most outstanding cinematic visuals I have seen in a long time.  The sequences on the moon, particularly in IMAX, are stunning, but even that doesn’t do them justice.  They are completely mesmerizing in their beauty.  Combined with the sound design, watching the moon landing is something that will stick with moviegoers for a very long time.

In all fairness though, one of the reasons the visuals work so well in the moment is because they are such a mess for much of the film.  The viewer will make a comparison between the two and it will be to the benefit of the moon landing.

As an analytical person, I wish that I could give you a percentage – the moon sequence looks better by 20% because the movie on the whole looks so bad, but I can’t.  I am simply not sure that such a thing can be accurately measured, but boy do I wish it could.

Much of “First Man,” this tale of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) setting foot on the moon, is shot in close-up with a super-shaky camera.  This does a great job of pulling the viewer in, at least initially, on an emotional level.  It also makes it stunningly hard to step back and understand the story details from the film’s opening at the start of the 1960s until it’s close at the end.

It is a movie about feel, rather than facts.  In one of the great moments in “First Man,” Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) explains just how difficult a task it will be for them to get to the moon, just how much they don’t know and how much they need to learn.  While we get to see successes and failures along the way, Chazelle, and the screenplay by Josh Singer, give us virtually no detail about them – the sequence with Slayton doesn’t have a payoff.  We don’t know why things worked.  We don’t know why things failed.  We simply do not know why things are happening.

The problem first appears at the start of the film, with Armstrong flying an X-15 and skipping off the atmosphere.  We in the audience watch in amazement at the visuals.  It is incredible – beautiful and completely disorienting at the same time. Everything is going well for Armstrong and then suddenly it isn’t.  We hear over the radio that he has bounced off the atmosphere.  Why?  The movie doesn’t say.  How does he fix this?  We watch as he fiddles with something in the plane and fires some sort of engine or thruster and then, poof, it’s fixed.  What did he do?  The movie doesn’t go into it.

“First Man” doesn’t care.  What it cares about is that we saw the beauty of the camera shots and we were disoriented and that it was scary.  Worse though, this is conveyed through the camera as much as it is through Gosling. It makes the close-ups and shaky camera feel like a cheat – the emotion isn’t in the acting or the actions, but rather in the camerawork.  We are being given a fraudulent take on the emotions because “First Man” offers no details.

It is like Armstrong himself in the movie.  This is a man whom we see quite hurt by the loss of his daughter towards the start of the movie, and who is closed, emotionally, for the rest of the proceedings. What is he thinking?  What is he feeling?  We don’t know.  We can guess, but we don’t know, and those guesses are made more difficult by the camera shaking all around Gosling’s face as we try to read his emotions.

Now, there is an argument to be made that what Chazelle is doing is offering up the difference between being weightless up in space and the full weight, in terms of gravity and emotion, here on Earth.  In zero gravity, the camera is smooth; on Earth, it is not.  This both makes sense and is entirely possible.  It is only in space, where Armstrong doesn’t feel the weight of his personal loss, the weight of the world upon his shoulders, that we have a clear vision.

It is a thematically interesting, intelligent, way to approach shooting the film.  However, it still goes too far.  It is still too difficult to read situations and what is taking place beyond reading some emotions of the characters in that situation and placing the shaky cam emotions on top of them.

Emotions do radiate from Claire Foy, who plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet, and it is simply heartbreaking to watch Armstrong and a friend congratulate Ed White (Jason Clarke), when White announces that he has been chosen for Apollo 1.  But, this last is because we know what happens to Apollo 1 before the characters in the film.  We know the story and so add the emotion to it.

“First Man” is, in the end, a wonderful and deeply flawed movie.  It is beautiful and disastrous to look at.  It is emotional and intellectual and devoid of both as well. It wants us to feel for, and about, the characters, and yet has no desire whatsoever to tell us about them beyond some surface characteristics.  For instance, the movie has nothing nice to say about Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) whatsoever.  It is almost comedic in the way it makes Aldrin overly blunt and wholly unsympathetic. But, other than a couple of rude, unfeeling, comments, we have no insight into Aldrin.  None.

Consequently, this is a wholly underwhelming movie.  One that, perhaps like the space program itself, operates in fits and spurts with disasters and successes one after the other until, finally, it lands on the moon in utterly spectacular fashion.

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photo credit:  Universal Pictures

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