First Man Review
One of the most ridiculously controversial films of the year is here at last so that we may finally witness how much Damien Chazelle hates America. Or we would realize that the controversy is utter trash, and this is actually one of the best films of the year so far, if not quite up to the standard that Chazelle has been setting for himself.
The very first experience we get with First Man is a taste of the strongest aspect of the entire film. We get thrust into the cockpit of an experimental airplane alongside Neil Armstrong. The entire opening is thrilling and intense as the camera shakes and rattles as the Armstrong struggles to maintain control and return to the safety of Earth. For its first few minutes, this film does not feel like a historical or biographical drama. The pacing, the editing, the sound mixing, and the intensity all make the opening feel more like a horror film than anything else. This is not a one-time thing either, as this structure defines many of the pivotal moments of the film. Those moments are the ones which take place within the cramped confines of the experimental aircraft and spacecraft where the conflicts, challenges and triumphs of the film all take place.
A small taste of what much of the film provides, and how it allows the audience to feel the same fear that the astronauts may have felt.
By framing these scenes as horror shorts within this larger dramatic framework, it allows the audience to share one key emotion with the characters being depicted on screen: fear. These weren’t family sedans making a simple commute to work while packing a 5-star safety rating; they were tin cans held together by a handful of bolts and screws that were run by computers that were several times weaker than the phones sitting in our pockets. Imagine Evel Knievel strapping himself to a pile of metal with some rockets attached to it and attempting to travel to the moon, and you essentially have the identity of the astronauts shooting for the moon in the 1960’s. Fear would have been a prevalent emotion for these daredevils and pioneers, and it is Chazelle’s ability to manifest that fear for the audience which makes First Man into a success film. Every single time a character leaves the safety of earth, they are greeted with a tsunami of visual and audible stimulus. It feels as though these scenes have disembodied and distorted screams carefully sewn into the sound layering. Every step forward which brought the astronauts one step closer to the moon, and also one step closer to danger and their untimely demise, and thus, each scene is tinged with horror and dread.
Except for one; the final approach to the lunar surface is the only scene which bucks the trend. Rather than bringing about a feeling of dread from the audience, it rouses feelings of triumph and success for the first time in the entire film. The camera is calmer, the score has ditched the horrific undertones in favor of a more bombastic instrumental, and the overall tone feels more heroic than death defying for the first time. This change in structure allows the climax of the film to feel like a real progression not only for the characters directly involved, but for the NASA program in general. Flag planting be damned, this was a monumental success for the men and women involved with the program, and for the U.S. in general as it was at last able to get the ultimate one up over the Soviets in the now completed space race.
During these scenes, First Man is at its peak, and it provides moments which are able to stand with any other which has come out this year. Unfortunately, the scenes in between the space flights can’t quite measure up. The middle of the film drags on a little bit and it feels as though the nearly two and a half hour run time could have been trimmed down a little bit. While the character dynamics are crucial to the message of the film, they aren’t able to carry the film in between the suffocating and intense spaceflight scenes.
Part of this falls on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling who has a bit of a robotic and monotone acting style which is very effective for some roles, but not as much for this one. We witness Neil Armstrong has to withstand the tragic deaths of his friends and coworkers, pockets of the country questioning the merit of chasing the moon, and the pressure of his wife who (properly) pressures him on the reality that his desire to set foot on the moon might land her without a husband and their children without a father. The entire time all of that pressure is reaching a boiling point, we don’t really get the feeling that it weighs on Armstrong, as Gosling’s body language rarely changes throughout the film. There isn’t the same visceral feedback that we get from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash, or even the performances of Emma Stone or even Gosling in La La Land. There, Gosling’s sort of indifference is effective for that character while being a weakness for this one. It is not fair to place everything on Gosling, as his performance is good, though not great. It is simply that his is somewhat emblematic of a film that struggles to keep up the pace when two characters are speaking and not being hurled through space in a crumpled up soda can.
Though effective enough, Gosling’s performance doesn’t quite convey much of the gravity that Armstrong faced in his quest to step foot on the moon.
Though it falls at least a step short of La La Land, and a couple of steps short of Whiplash (the best film this decade, by the way), First Man is one of the finest films of the year, and definitely worth a viewing from anyone who enjoys films- especially those who enjoy some of the more technical aspects of filmmaking. But if you are a diehard flag worshipper, whose only satisfaction in life comes from having your obsessive love for the American flag, then this film is not going to be for you.
I suppose it is time to talk about how stupid this is. Apparently there was a ruckus caused by the fact that there was not a direct depiction of the U.S. flag being planted on the moon. The fact that it is obviously in frame a few second later apparently isn’t good enough. In this new wave of nationalism and hyper-patriotism, flag worshipping has become the norm for some folks. If you show anything below complete respect of, admiration for and straight up love for the U.S. flag, then you are not a patriot, and thus unfit to be an American. At least, that is the impression that some of the louder folks give off.
In reality, there was not a flag planting scene in First Man, because this was not a film about the triumph of America. It was about the triumph of the people who went to the moon. The fact that they are Americans is just a bonus. To the first individual not just of your entire species, but the first living organism in the entire cosmic history of your planet to step foot on another celestial body, nationalism must seem inconsequential, petty, and insignificant. Though the race between the U.S. and the Soviets was certainly mentioned, it was not eh focus of the film. Instead, the focus of the film is what the focus of each of Chazelle’s previous two films has been: to what lengths must truly exceptional individuals go to realize their potential and their dreams? What do they have to sacrifice, and who do they have to leave behind?
In Whiplash, Andrew Neiman had to turn his back on the support from his father in order to embrace the abusive approval of his mentor in order to become, as he puts it, one of the greats. Both Sebastian and Mia were able to achieve their dreams of owing their own club, and become a successful actress, respectively. Unfortunately, those achievements were only possible by them not ending up together. In order for these characters to achieve what they perceive as greatness, they must each sacrifice something. First Man examines this pursuit of greatness via the actual sacrifice of the men involved in the space program. How many wives were widowed by the space race? How many children were forced to grow up without fathers in this dogged chase to step foot on the moon? The most effective scene that take space outside of a ship or plane is when Armstrong is forced by his wife to sit down with his two sons and convey to them that he might not be coming back from his trip to the moon. He cannot look his boys in the face, and answers their questions in the same method that he does a press conference just a few minutes earlier. He understands that this is a real possibility that he could die on this mission, but how does he tell that to two young boys that they might never see their father again? When carefully examining human greatness, and the necessary losses which come along with that pursuit, nationalism seems silly in comparison.