A solidly good film eclipsed by a star that was born last week. While there have been many movies and documentaries about the space race of the mid 20th century, including the amazing Hidden Figures, this is the first film to truly take us behind NASA and into the very home of the American hero astronaut Neil Armstrong. Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not just another film that tells the story of earth to the moon using familiar events, characters, or archival footage, but instead, it takes us behind the headlines to vicariously experience what it was like for Niel and his family on this and other dangerous missions. This is not a film about the US Apollo mission to the moon nor is it about how NASA had to push through major public negative criticism of its money-sucking endeavors; it is about the hero’s journey. And our hero is Neil Armstrong. As I do not want to spend time on that ridiculous flag controversy, I will summarize that element of the film. The flag IS there at the landing site and there are plenty of flags and references to the United Staes in the film–there–moving on. When it comes to a Chazelle film, I expect a strong screenplay to serve as the foundation upon which the visual elements are build. Unfortunately, Chazelle did not write this film and it shows. It suffers from a weak screenplay that has repercussions felt through the movie. Some critics have been writing about the strong emotional tug in the movie, but I did not feel it. I also feel that Gosling was not at the top of his game, compared to past performances. First Man is all around good, and I hope for nominations for it! It’s just not as strong as I had hoped the next Chazelle film would be. Compared to A Star is Born, First Man is not as strong and I imagine the popularity of this week’s Halloween will also cast a shadow on this riveting story.
Before Neil Armstrong uttered his now famous words when he stepped foot on the moon, he first had get there. But he had to endure a lot more than just training for the Gemini and Apollo missions in order to be the first man on the moon. More than previous films such as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 also about critical space missions, this one practically places you in the cockpit for a first person journey from earth to the moon. You will be taken back by the sheer number of personal and professional tragedies to befall Armstrong; and furthermore, you’ll feel the vibrations of the rocket, the out of control spinning, and the moments where you are on the cliff facing death. Follow Neil and his family on this turbulent drama that takes the fascination with and mind-blowing nature of the cockpit and turn it into an image and confinement to dread for it feels more like a death trap than the bridge of forging a new frontier.
This is a drama, not an action movie. So if you are searching for a space adventure, then this is not a film for you. But if you want to learn more about the first man on the moon, what he went through personally and professionally and feel what he felt, then this is a film for you. Incredible opening scene! Hitchcock once stated that a writer or director needs to drop the audience into the middle of the action in order to instantly hook them into the story. One of the cardinal rules of screenwriting is to start each scene as close to the end of the scene as possible in order to write leanly and effectively. That is precisely what awaits you at the beginning of First Man. No ramping up to conflict here; you are in the cockpit with Neil Armstrong as he is testing an aircraft when the ship begins to drift closer to space instead of returning to the ground. This opening scene is one of the most incredible ones that I have seen in a long time. Heart pounding. Demonstrating his mastery of visual storytelling, Chazelle crafts an opening scene that thrusts you into a gritty, visceral journey that will leave you breathless. As intense as this scene is, there are man others in the film that will place you at the brink of death and destruction in an effort to puncture a hole into what is possible with the fledgling space program.
On the heels of that incredibly intense scene, Chazelle takes us to a hospital where Neil daughter Karen is undergoing radiation therapy for her tumor. In an attempt to channel Pixar-like storytelling for the opening of a film, we quickly follow the family from the hospital to a funeral for a fellow pilot, at which his daughter is playing, to Neil battling insurance companies and doctors over the phone to an intimate father-daughter moment to lowering Karen’s casket in the ground. As emotional as this opening sequence is, it falls short of where it needed to be in order to truly evoke the strong emotion for which the film was going. Compared to watching A Star is Born the week prior, I was not feeling as strong an emotional connection to these characters to justify how I was supposed to feel after these scenes. Audiences were not given sufficient time to connect with the characters in order to feel the heartache intended to be felt during and after the funeral. It was sad for sure, but not devastating. That being said, it is entirely possible that audience members who have children may have felt the heart-wrenching moment differently because of knowing what it’s like to have a child. It is evident that Chazelle did not write this film because the screenplay is on the weaker side. Now, I am not suggesting the story is weak compared to most films. On the contrary, it is much stronger than many other films; however, compared to what I expect from Chazelle, it is weaker than Whiplash and La La Land.
The screenplay contains three stories. The A story is Neil Armstrong’s personal journey, the B story is Neil’s relationship with his wife Janet (Claire Foy), and the C story is his career at NASA. There is clearly a desperate attempt to link the tragedy of Neil’s daughter to his hell-bent nature to constantly take himself close to death, putting his family and marriage under immense strain. With the tragedy of Karen not sufficiently setup and rushed through, it is hard to connect it to the rest of the movie. The film wants audiences to believe that dangerous missions are Neil’s coping mechanisms to deal with the death of his daughter, but there just isn’t enough evidence in the film support that. I see Chazelle’s desire to link Karen’s death to Neil’s desire to put himself and his family in physiological and emotional harm’s way. In terms of the character development of Neil, the stoic behavior, monosyllabic responses, countless moments of silence, and machismo become repetitive and boring. Although he certainly battles inner demons and real-world obstacles in order to eventually reach the moon, I don’t witness inner character development throughout the screenplay. Neil, at the end of the story, is pretty much the same Neil we meet at the beginning. While we are witness to the strife in his marriage to Janet, that relationship goes no where as well. There is simply no character arc or growth in this film. And that is what hinders this screenplay from being great.
Perhaps the film was built upon a weak screenplay, but there is quite a lot to like about it! Much like Interstellar was showered with nominations and wins in the technical categories, First Man will likely also see nominations for score, sound, editing, cinematography and more. From a technical achievement perspective, this film is incredible to behold. If you have the opportunity to watch the film in IMAX, then that is definitely what you want to do for the full, immersive experience. When you cannot pick out the score, that is often the park of a brilliantly diegetic score that seamlessly integrates into the film. There is a highly emotional component to the score that enhances the screenplay and picks up where the screenplay felt off in order to evoke that emotional response. I absolutely loved the cinematography. Much like the score, the cinematography felt so incredibly natural, so organic. Whether the camera is providing me with a subjective or objective POV, it frames each shot perfectly to communicate the tension and suspense. All around, Chazelle takes all the elements (except the screenplay) of the film and combines them for a solidly good film.
Some quick notes on the performances, I found that Gosling delivered an above average performance. And that’s above average for him, not compared to the litany of other actors. Obviously, compared to other actors, he is at the top of his game. But I feel that he is stronger in La La Land. And the reason for this performance that just didn’t quite hit the mark for me can be traced back to the screenplay. I’ve no doubt that he will be nominated–and he should–but I’ve little confidence that he will win. Claire Foy’s performance of as Janet Armstrong is fantastic! She will most likely also see a nomination for her role as the wife of the first man on the moon. She was incredibly strong, determined, and loyal. She demonstrates a stronger character growth arc than Gosling. The screenplay appears to have developed her character more effectively than his. Compared to the other performances in the film, hers is the most standout.
Definitely see this film. Just because it suffers from a weak screenplay does not mean that it doesn’t have a lot of offer. I greatly appreciate this film for taking us on an intimate journey with the Armstrong family. This is a story that has not been told on screen before and truly shows us the personal and professional links that Neil Armstrong went to in order to stand on the moon and announce to the world “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!
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