FIRST MAN (Movie Review)

** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language)
Released: October 12, 2018
Runtime: 141 minutes
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Ciarán Hinds, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber

If someone asked me to recommend a thrilling portrayal of the space race, First Man is the last movie I’d point them to.

Lacking the epic scope of The Right Stuff and the emotional power of Apollo 13 (or both, which HBO’s From The Earth To The Moon has in parsecs), First Man floats in a surprisingly flat, dull orbit. It’s the first misfire for Academy Award winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash), and it’s a considerable one.

His approach – making an intimate portrait of Neil Armstrong (the first man to walk on the moon) instead of a broad overview of the historic Apollo missions – is an intriguing experiment, but it fails. The result is a conventional and muted drama where the galaxy is a distant backdrop, not a canvas.

More problematic: the domestic conflicts are as rote as the obstacles experienced by NASA. We’ve seen this space explored before.

Maybe not in this way, but now we know why. It’s boring.

With the exception of the “one small step, one giant leap” climax, First Man never elicits a single moment of awe (and only one other event packs a punch of tragic power). When your subject is space exploration, that’s a crippling, insurmountable problem.

Another problem, given that cinema is primarily a visual medium: First Man is a generic, uninteresting movie to look at, despite the smart choice to film it on a grainy physical stock (giving it an archival grit) rather than in a pristine digital veneer. It’s not poorly shot, but it’s surprisingly average.

Coming off the colorful eye-popping splendor of La La Land’s artfully composed (and choreographed) images, Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren decide to go handheld, with the bulk of those shaky shots being in moody, claustrophobic close-ups. That ubiquity robs the close-up of its judicious power for key moments. Plus, they’re rarely framed with specificity, diluting their psychological purpose.

Aside from a few evocative images of faces looking up in wonder, this roaming modern aesthetic feels piecemeal, lacking in a directorial vision.

Chazelle’s hope, it would seem, is to create a visceral POV of Armstrong’s experience, but when entire launch and flight sequences remain mostly sequestered to the interior of a capsule (and the few exteriors are mostly limited, not expansive, in their range), it doesn’t feel like we’re gaining a new perspective; it feels like we’ve lost the most important one.

In base cinematic terms, First Man plays like the first cut of a space movie that’s still missing most of its effects shots, or one that (like an ambitious student film) has to shoot around the fact that it doesn’t have a budget for them.

Everything feels off and out of place here (even the music often has a folkish lilt), as if made by a filmmakers that are entirely wrong for the material. Chazelle apes Terrence Malick’s wistful style but is completely devoid of its lyricism; he flies well below the stratosphere of Kubrick, Nolan, or Spielberg, or the breathtaking heights that Ron Howard forged out of a story we already knew the ending to.

Missing most of all is a sense of deep humanity, that profound yearning to reach beyond our limits, the why of why we were doing it.

First Man focuses so much on the personal challenges that it bypasses the aspirational spirit that drove our country to pursue such a monumental effort; the possibilities it opened for all people, the ideals that united a nation, and the very values that make those challenges – especially the life-threatening ones – all worth it.

Chazelle tells the story with blinders on, meditating on the risks while ignoring why those risks were being taken in the first place. We comprehend the dangers but, compared to better space race dramatizations, the mission has never felt less consequential.

Remote and passionless, it’s as if Chazelle himself is indifferent to the story he’s telling, disconnected from the people in it, their historical context, and the dreams that inspired them. It’s the antithesis of his previous (and more personal) films where you can feel the obsession pulsating through every frame.

Ryan Gosling is little more than an Armstrong cipher, giving fodder to his haters who find Gosling’s laconic screen stoicism too dull (most of the time they’re wrong, but not here). Claire Foy, at least, is much more earnest, yet she’s handed the thankless role of the dutiful yet anxious wife. Yes, she’s given moments of frank, confrontational resolve, but it’s forced melodrama (even desperate) of yelling and venting, not self-empowering agency.

Everyone else fills stock rolls with stock lines, with Corey Stall’s Buzz Aldrin the only one sporting a vibrant personality. Sadly he’s positioned as a bit of a putz, but then that fits the film’s humorless pretense.

There’s been some partisan controversy surrounding Chazelle’s decision to not replicate the iconic moment of Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon, but that’s not the problem with First Man; it’s that Chazelle never plants an effective artistic flag of his own.

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