Plenty of justifications have been addressed why Americans think they live in the world’s greatest country, perhaps one of the most common being because they landed on old Luna before Russia. But unlike that giant leap mankind took, Damien Chazelle’s attempt to recreate it in First Man takes three massive steps down after his last two projects set him on a hot streak. History’s youngest Best Director Oscar winner managed to accomplish the impossible: turning an important figure into a passive plot device with Bella Swan level personality.
The technical elements instead steal the focus, diminishing Neil Armstrong with unnecessary focused shots on a fly and a control panel’s Chinese takeout food that add no story significance. This emotional distance may be for the best though, as the story built around Neil features plenty unrealistic additions, most groanworthy being what he does with his dead daughter’s bracelet. Even Interstellar might mock its ridiculousness! Riding off that other 2001: A Space Odyssey wannabee, important details are disregarded, including international contribution to NASA, allowing key milestones to merely happen to each character, particularly Neil’s wife, Janet, who’s worse written than any pre-Force Awakens Star Wars female. At least those ugly Star Wars prequels had actual image contrast, unlike the bad color grading of this movie, which gives an ugly texture put together by someone who let success override his head.
However, taking the pre-production design process into account, a nice attention on using cool vs. warm colors juxtaposes Janet’s baby blue dress against the Apollo 11’s bright jet flames. Mary Zophres’ costumes (La La Land, True Grit) are surprisingly detailed as they take on an impression of wanting to be like moonbeams: a pure, straight path, but not quite able to get there... they look more often like the chaos of a nuclear explosion. Yes, every crisp design choice matches an era of new beginnings, unlike Neil’s turmoil of losing his daughter to brain cancer. Especially after the dark, scary opening scene when Neil first hits Earth’s thermosphere, enough justification guarantees chills with every view beyond the clouds.
Many say this feature must only be seen in IMAX, and honestly, it’s true. From the Gemini 5’s radio that rattles your ears to the documentary-esque camera cropped closer than usual, Neil’s nauseous claustrophobia becomes instantly comprehensible. Then after the sounds of the ship boom out of control, complete space silence takes Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic to heart. It forces prolonged depth into infinity’s empty black void beyond Earth’s blue aura; then this Kubrickian style turns simultaneously epic on the ground with a heavy landing on the Mojave Desert, an intro that would make Steven Spielberg proud. Also, when they reach the moon’s surface, despite the controversy, a US flag does show up! It’s just not seen being planted in! Thus, you can stop getting mad about it.
You can get mad instead at the way Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson, La La Land) plays Neil Armstrong without any believability. Ryan acts the same as he did in Blade Runner 2049, just staring with eyes half-open as if confused about how to play the role properly, worse than Amy Adams’ grossly mediocre Arrival performance. One might very well call Neil a replicant in this case as he barely even reacts to a training simulator. His nonexistent effort turns extra noticeable though on the earth’s soil, as him listening to “Lunar Rhapsody” with Janet feels unromantic. Both Ryan and Claire Foy probably felt very confused about how to portray their respective roles because of the perplexing scene arrangements which beg you to question, “why does any of this matter?” For instance, most of their impersonal conversations are filmed from behind as if this was a low-budget romantic period piece/failed Oscar bait.
It’s unbelievable how Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for the tremendous Spotlight, now turns out one of 2018’s worst screenplays, blocking all the genuine difficulties felt that tell us new, personal facts about Neil Armstrong and his family. Everybody becomes a plot device pushing events forward, technology often left to work instead to hand out exposition. One is an old informational video that replaces conflict to give out crucial information, which honestly just looks lazy. Besides, we already know they will succeed, so why would any of this matter?
Although the core problem with First Man is a lot deeper than just a lousy script, it’s worse even than historical accuracy—the most common issue with biopics (this one is relatively true to what really happened). The core problem is that this film uses a man’s life as an excuse to create cinematic spectacle. How would you like it if somebody took a milestone of your life, removed all fears leading up to that milestone, and replaced it with empty, pretty pictures?
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!
“FIRST MAN (2018).” History vs Hollywood. CTF Media. Web. <http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/first-man/>.
First Man. Universal Studios. Web. <https://www.firstman.com/>.
Gardner, Kate. “Review: First Man Is a Technically Stunning Film Made at the Wrong Time.” Digital image. The Mary Sue. 9 Oct 2018. Web. <https://www.themarysue.com/first-man-review/>.
“Neil Armstrong's sons, filmmakers discuss making 'First Man'.” Collect Space. 9 July 2018. Web. <http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-070918a-first-man-armstrong-sons-accuracy.html>.