Houston, we have a problem…
First Man is the newest film from Damien Chazelle, director of such acclaimed films as La La Land and Whiplash. It is the story of Neil Armstrong, the captain of the Apollo 11 mission and the first man to walk on the moon.
Unfortunately, it shows that Chazelle would have been better off sticking to his indie roots, as his first major studio project is significantly underwhelming. Many people think that this film is out-of-this-world, but it actually shows that he is starting to come back down to Earth.
That being said, not all of the blame can be placed on Chazelle. Also a first, he directed from a script he had no part in writing. Instead, Josh Singer, the mind behind films such as Spotlight and The Post (two great films as well) penned the screenplay for this film.
With such an abundance of talent responsible for this film, it should be amazing. Honestly, it isn’t a horrible film. However, because the film had so much potential, the fact that the result is simply mediocre makes it one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
The biggest issue with the film’s writing is that it is too straightforward. The moon landing is arguably one of the biggest moments in human history. So many people put great effort into its success. Why is a film about it this uninteresting? Instead of opting to tell the story in a cinematic and thrilling way, the film is very paint-by-numbers. It simply jumps from one incident to the next, barely taking time to allow the characters to react to these events.
Additionally, the film doesn’t do a good job of developing the characters. Armstrong is far too flat. In fact, he is made to look like a total jerk, and it doesn’t seem to be the film’s intention to do so. He isn’t particularly likable in the film, with the little sympathy the audience has for him coming from the relationship with his family. In fact, some of the supporting characters, like Edward Higgins White, are better-developed than Armstrong himself. Armstrong’s wife is also a disappointingly shallow character. Although she does have many of the best scenes in the film, she still could have done more.
The acting of the film is one of its strongest elements, but the ensemble is stuck with a lackluster script. Ryan Gosling is average as the lead. He is just too emotionless in the role. He does a much better job of being witty. Claire Foy, on the other hand, is impressive. She steals every scene she can with a performance that makes the most out of what she is given. The actors in the supporting cast, including Corey Stoll, Jason Clarke, and Kyle Chandler give strong turns, too.
The execution of the film is also of frustratingly mediocre quality. Multiple directorial decisions made in the film are inexplicable. In many regards, the film just doesn’t work. This is partially due to the fact that a few parts of the film were counterintuitive and/or anticlimactic.
The cinematography of the film is horrid. There’s no reason for a film to be shot this poorly. The framing is weird, with many heads being cut off. The camera is constantly wobbling, and in some sections is unbearably shaky. There is one scene in the film that may aggravate people with motion sickness and possibly even sensitivity to flashing lights. It’s hard to believe that the same DP that did La La Land did this film, too.
The score by Justin Hurwitz is absolutely beautiful. It is easy to see the ways in which Hurwitz’s themes have transferred between films. That being said, the wonderful music is put to waste because it is incorporated into the film oddly. The score either starts a few seconds before or a few seconds after what seems to be natural. This creates a jarring effect.
However, the film’s set design is undeniably impressive. The sets that were created for the film are truly magnificent. The scale of the shuttles is impressive, and the level of detail put into them is surprising. The costumes are extreme, too.
Overall, First Man is not even close to what it should have been. The underwhelming story and aggravating cinematography combine to create a viewing experience that isn’t too pleasurable. It is far from the worst film of the year, but it is perhaps one of the biggest let downs.
First Man opens in theaters everywhere October 12.