First Man Review: Don't Give an Art Student a History Assignment
PG-13: Some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language
Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures
2 Hrs and 21 Minutes
Dir: Damien Chazelle | Writer: Josh Singer
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Pablo Schreiber, Cory Michael Smith, Brian d'Arcy James
Have you ever been the odd man out when it comes to film? Every year there’s that one Oscar-bait movie the world adores and you’re that one guy who just doesn’t understand it. Plenty of my friends despise “La La Land”, especially my best friend Fran. Meanwhile, I think it’s one of the greatest musicals of all time. Back in 2012 I thought “Argo” was the weakest of the Best Picture nominees, but somehow it won Best Picture against “Life of Pi”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and many other noteworthy nominees. Long story short, you can probably guess what I’m going to say about “First Man”. Oh yeah. I’m that odd man out.
“First Man”, the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, based on the book by James R. Hansen, the film explores the triumphs and the cost—on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
If there’s anything I love about Damien Chazelle it’s the fact that he’s great at establishing character through actions. The film’s introduction throws you right into the midst of the action where Armstrong is going through an intense aircraft sequence. If you’ve ever experienced airplane turbulence, this film will kick your ass.
The cinematography is amazing. When it’s not experimenting with shaky cam, the film offers some beautiful shots that are astounding to see, especially in IMAX. It doesn’t even look like it was filmed on digital. The cinematography has a grainy, old school quality to it which correlates with the time period in which the story takes place. I appreciate that it occasionally utilizes archival footage to give contextual transitions to the narrative. It gives the film a rather grounded atmosphere.
There are some incredibly glorious shots when they reach space that make you question how they did that. Is it CGI? Is it practical? Did they really send Gosling into space?
I also give it this: the sound design and sound mixing for the film is incredible. The IMAX experience delivers moments where you feel immersed into the setting. When Armstrong is going to the moon, you feel as if you’re strapped into the spaceship with him. The film soars whenever Armstrong is strapped into a shuttle because, from a filmmaking standpoint, these are the only scenes where effort is evident. It plays with your anxieties and your fear of flight so much that you might never want to get on a plane again.
As a matter of fact, everything that is space-related, especially the climax of the film, works and overshadows the drama. The drama aspects are take-it-or-leave-it and could've been condensed. Was that a criticism? Well, now is as good of a time as ever to segue into…
Hey Hollywood. Don’t give an art student a history assignment.
One of my biggest gripes with the film is the excessive amount of shaky cam. You can tell that a lot of the narrative is shot on handheld and it's bothersome. I get it. It adds an authentic immersiveness to the story, but since this is Damien Chazelle (the man who has proven he’s capable of doing incredible things and has a variety of different filmmaking techniques) it's disappointing to see how banal the filmmaking ends up being. It felt as if he was just... coasting along. Don’t let your sophomore movie be your peak and this be your first sign of descent.
Nothing about this film was sold to me. Not the pacing, not the filmmaking, and certainly not the performances.
A lot of people are praising the performances by the cast, primarily Gosling and Foy, and while I can get behind Foy who has two Oscar-bait scenes where she “shines” (I guess), I can’t get behind Gosling because he is never fully convincing as Neil Armstrong, for he’s doing the same method he does in most of his other films. His portrayal of Armstrong is way too safe. Back in 2016, Gosling exhibited a great deal of range with both “La La Land” showing off his musical side and “The Nice Guys” boasting his comedic side and he was incredible in both. We saw him in new lights that we’d never seen him in before. Here, he’s just passing through like the film’s direction.
This film is more of a personal story than one set on a larger scale because that’s what it needs to be in order for us to fully invest in this character. And while I respect that, you still need to incorporate that large scale because there is no real urgency or logical motivation. Even when it's revealed why Armstrong wanted to be the first man on the moon, it lacks that emotional impact that you wanted for the entire film. The film has a good turnaround by the final 30 minutes where the visuals are a large spectacle on par with films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” as the film becomes quiet, the music gets better, and the cinematography is fascinating. I would’ve loved it if the rest of the 2 hours was as coherent and amazing as the final 30 minutes, but since it took so long to get to that point, I was just bored. I mentally clocked out by the time the Apollo 11 mission sequence came into fruition.
You don’t receive any sense of real personalities by any of the cast, which is disappointing since they’re playing characters based on real people. To this day, I only know of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin being 2/3 of the crew on the Apollo 11, but I never seemed to learn the name of the third guy. I would have expected this film to inform me about the third guy who embarked on this dangerous mission, but alas that is not the case.
Spielberg is on his last quarter of life, so you would expect biopics like this from him. Of course, Chazelle is much younger so you expect more from him. There is no reason in hell that his third movie has to be a biopic that is as banal as a lot of other ones. When Scorsese does biopics, he manages to make them fun and engaging. When Spielberg does it, he makes sure his actors deliver impactful performances. I will go to my grave saying that “Lincoln” is one of my favorite biopics of all time and it’s because the ensemble was incredible. Here, you get neither of that, for all of the cast seems to just be passing through and Chazelle’s direction is so generically basic.
2 hrs and 21 minutes.
“First Man” has a running time of 2 hrs and 21 minutes.
There is no need for this to be so fucking long when in actuality it is booooring.
There is an ample amount of scenes that are so unnecessary and should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. There are scenes that pad out the running time and have no contextual value to the story at hand.
NOW TO TURN IT TO MYAN WHO SAT WITH ME DURING THIS AND WHAT NOT!
Too long. This film is too long and it doesn’t use its length to do anything impressive or memorable. Yes, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and underappreciated guy #3 were the first people on the moon and it’s a landmark achievement. The moon landing is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. That’s about as interesting as the film gets. The acting, in my opinion, leaves much to be desired. I didn’t resonate with any of the characters and the emotions were bland, if even present at all.
I’m aware that these are all unpopular opinions since apparently everyone else loved the film for some reason. To me, it’s another one of those overrated movies that screams “I’m serious! Look how serious I am! Nominate me for important awards!” More power to those who enjoy that kind of aesthetic, I suppose.
Lacking any lingering performances and any sign of notable moments of direction aside from it’s finale, “First Man” is the cinematic equivalent to a professor giving a creative art student a history assignment when you know good and well that he’s better off just doing art.
Rating: 2/5 | 44%
Super Scene: Launch of Apollo 11