"First Man": Houston, We Have A Movie
Spoiler Alert: I hint at scenes that happen throughout the film. So, if you have not taken the time to see the eagle land, you can still take one small step for yourself and read my “too long, didn’t read” score and synopsis.
TL;DR Score and Synopsis:
65/100: An aesthetically beautiful and authentic film that lacked directional purpose.
Now to the Review:
After he made a film about an aspiring jazz drummer pushed to the limits by a psychotic music teacher, followed by a movie about an aspiring jazz pianist pushed to the limits by the nature of the entertainment industry, Director Damien Chazelle took a giant leap forward with his innovative new concept: an aspiring astronaut pushed to the limits by numerous technological and societal factors (who - you guessed it - also happened to like jazz music). Damien, I love your movies man, but I am starting to sense a happy little pattern with your work here.
As mentioned earlier, Chazelle’s newest film, “First Man,” followed the inspiring story of the late and great American astronaut Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) journey to the moon. It seemed strange at the outset to cast a Canadian to play one of the most important historical figures in American history. However, this irony is part of a much broader pattern, much like Chazelle’s movies. For some bizarre reason, Hollywood likes to outsource American hero roles to foreigners (see: Englishman Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Englishman David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr., the list goes on…). I don’t get it, but I digress.
Despite the irony, you can tell that the creators behind “First Man” did their research on this landmark event. The astronaut costumes, space shuttles, technology, and mundane clothing all marvelously reflected the essence of the time, along with the severe limitations they faced while trying to accomplish their mission. The aesthetics helped shed light on just how extraordinary of an accomplishment the Apollo 11 mission was, and it made you feel as if you were part of the journey.
The editing in this film deserves a major nod, too. The creators and editors seamlessly blended vintage footage with their current rendition, making it seem like everything was happening in real time (as opposed to a vaguely dramatized recollection). If not done properly, this could have ruined the entire film, but “First Man” delivered with finesse.
Two characters in particular, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) were dynamic and authentic. It was clear that the mission ate at them internally and caused undue stress, the kind that many ordinary people never make it through. Claire Foy was particularly impressive in this film and had two stand out moments. Foy’s Janet Armstrong was passionate and supportive of her husband’s endeavors and subsequent success. But Foy also made Janet dynamic—the young woman showed shades of concern for her husband’s reckless behavior throughout the story. Then there’s Neil. While I felt that Ryan Gosling should have made Neil Armstrong more personable, his ability to communicate thoughts and feelings without words was incredible.
(Side note: They also outsourced the role of Neil Armstrong’s American wife to a British actress. In a country of over 330 million people, can we not find TWO AMERICAN ACTORS to play the role of an iconic American couple? What is going on here? Perhaps the technical acting schools need to step up their game? WAKE UP AMERICA, GET YOUR HEAD IN THE GAME.)
Apart from solid acting and great aesthetics, the movie malfunctioned in other areas. First, the movie lacked purpose beyond telling the classic story of “man on the moon.” I tried to come up with the big takeaways from the film, and I came away with… well… not a whole lot. The creators hinted at the importance of broadening one’s horizons, but they failed to carry it through, mostly because of the ending (which I will get to later). They did a nice job highlighting the difficulties of the mission from a technical standpoint—emotional stress plays a large role in such endeavors—but failed to explain why the cause (shooting for the moon) was worthwhile.
I was also irked by the shallow attempt to show how the journey to the moon received ample backlash. For example, there was one scene of protestors complaining about the racial injustice of the mission, along with a few congressmen criticizing them for the mission, sprinkled in with the occasional reference to the Soviet Union. But the backlash never gets explored in a tangible way. There were only one or two lackluster scenes that seemed like a “Hail Mary” attempt to create drama.
At no point did the film properly explain the true essence of the mission, why this operation overrode external complaints, or showcase the hyper-competitiveness of the space race during the time. It missed the mark on ALL these counts, which left me disappointed. For something as high stakes as this, they needed to do a much better job at showcasing urgency.
A lack of purpose made the movie drag at times. While some scenes added some tension, “First Man” possessed too much silence and outright tediousness. It’s possible that these attempts intended to pay homage to the difficulty of the work involved. The issue then becomes that if I wanted to learn about all of that, I would watch one of the many documentaries made about the mission. Simply, the lack of purpose detracted from the entertainment value of the movie. That said, there were some moments of great intensity that left me on the edge of my seat, so I was happy for the most part.
Before transitioning to the “Oscar Watch” section, I want to address the elephant in the room. Before its release, “First Man” came under fire for not incorporating the flag planting scene. While I am not going to jump on that outrageous bandwagon of people calling this movie “anti-American” or “communist propaganda” (c’mon people, they still had the flag in the movie, put the phony outrage away), I was still disappointed they chose not to incorporate this moment considering how iconic the photo is. That moment helped explain the reason for the mission and how it brought the whole country together, two things the movie (more specifically, the ending) failed to address.
I complained earlier about the lack of pay-off the movie portrayed concerning Apollo 11. Adding this scene could have alleviated that. If they would have led with purpose, I could have overlooked the missing “flag planting” moment. Generally speaking, the last few parts of the movie were underwhelming and underplayed the importance of the moon landing. Something more symbolic and “feel good” would have been nice.
Overall, on a surface level, “First Man” executed most movie elements wonderfully. But after digging deeper beneath the surface, the movie felt hollow.
To get a nomination for “Best Picture”, you need to have a certain amount of Academy members indicating that your movie was the top movie of the year. I have a hard time believing that people will call this the BEST movie they saw all year, but there could be enough nostalgia for that moment in history that it pushes it over the edge. Personally, I would not nominate this for “Best Picture,” but given the great aesthetics reflecting the time period, I think there is approximately a 55% chance this gets a courtesy nomination for the category. It seems unlikely this will walk home with any hardware, but there are potential nominations waiting on deck. I will sort those into three potential categories: Highly likely nomination with a possible victory, possible nomination with close to a zero percent chance at winning, and long-shot nominations.
Highly likely nomination with a possible victory:
Best Editing: As I mentioned earlier, the editing for this film was nothing short of spectacular. It should be in the mix to win come Oscar time.
Best Supporting Actress: Claire Foy (Janet Armstrong) was very sympathetic, believable, and possessed a healthy range of emotions. Her performance will be hard to top.
Possible nominations with a miniscule chance at winning:
Best Actor: Ryan Gosling (Neil Armstrong) showed some nice range throughout the movie, and his ability to portray his internal stress was solid. I doubt he will win, but it was a quality performance deserving of a nomination.
Cinematography: The various filters used throughout the course of the film, their ability to capture the emotions of the characters, and the various shots that made it seem like you are actually there make it a deserving candidate for the category.
Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: All the sounds they made and incorporated into the film seemed incredibly authentic. They also followed in the footsteps of previous space movies to ensure that the movie stayed dead quiet when out in orbit. It was pretty cool.
Long Shot Nominations:
Best Director: While I did not like the direction he took the film down, Damien Chazelle could still very well get a nomination for his work. He is quite popular among members of the Academy. Also, given their tendency to reward Directors who stress realism in their movies (See: Christopher Nolan Best Director Nomination for Dunkirk last year), his research on the subject matter may pay off.
Best Adapted Screenplay: While I did not think the writing was particularly strong, Josh Singer is a known commodity in the Academy and it is a pretty weak year for this category. It could definitely sneak in there.
Best Production Design: The authenticity behind everything from an appearance standpoint could push it over the edge.
Best Visual Effects: Past precedent indicates that the Academy likes to reward films that take place in space for this category. We will see if that continues here.