First Man

I’ve spent many hours and more than a few cans of La Croix trying to understand First Man, and I remain befuddled. Whiplash, another film by director Damien Chazelle, was a masterpiece of framing, lighting, sound, and motion. La La Land was a spectacle that more than made up for in ambition what it lost in subtlety. And then we have Chazelle’s latest feature, written by Josh Singer, YC ’94, which, like a burrito from Taco Bell, fails to impress.

The movie portrays an abbreviated version of Neil Armstrong’s transition from test pilot to astronaut, his entry into the Apollo Program, and finally his climactic landing on the moon in 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission. It sheds light on his emotional struggles around the death of his daughter, and the toll his frequent brushes with danger take on his family.

The premise of the movie might have doomed it from the beginning. One thing the movie — which is based on James R. Hansen’s eponymous biography of Neil Armstrong — makes painfully clear is that Armstrong himself is the least interesting thing about the Apollo Program. Ryan Gosling’s performance as Armstrong, which is understated to the point of absurdity, does nothing to make him more likeable. Yes, Armstrong is supposed to be depicted as a quiet, yet soulful man with hidden depths, but those depths are very well hidden indeed; the inane repetition of the motif of Gosling staring wistfully at the moon erases not only any veneer of true nuance but also the audience’s desire to understand the personality within the man. Claire Foy’s performance as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, brings a little energy into the frequent scenes of domesticity chez Armstrong, but her irrepressible passion only underscores Gosling’s passivity at every moment they interact. Frankly, watching them talk at home, I found myself much more interested in her than in him, which in an Armstrong biopic might be a problem.

Aside from some truly interesting sequences — for example, the opening, which is set in Armstrong’s cockpit on a dangerous test flight — the movie is disappointingly predictable. Chazelle’s framing isn’t bad, but the shots he chooses to return to in nearly every scene in the movie — the shaky movement, the conversations, the wistful staring — are uninspiring. Shots of people framed against windows with rain pattering against them were interesting when Kurosawa first did them in the 1950s, but, by now they’ve risen to the level of cliche. If the movie were catastrophically terrible — if it showed the signs of a vision that failed to execute, like an unwieldy structure or an excessive visual style — that at least would have implied that a singular, unique vision existed, even if it failed to translate to the screen. First Man lacks that sort of ambition. It’s bland. And from a director who built his reputation on unpredictability — whose first two major features are as different from Hollywood standards as they are from each other — that mediocrity is heartbreaking.

Richard Brody, in the New Yorker, has called First Man a “Right-Wing Fetish Object,” claiming that, in its obsession with the valor of the Space Race, it takes a “regressive emotional perspective” that glorifies white men and their achievements. This may be true, but I don’t believe that the movie takes sides as strongly as Brody suggests; the film simply lacks the ambition to be a true ideological work. Depressingly enough, its dullness is its salvation.

Much like a Tide Pod lunch, First Man looks much better than it tastes and feels. I’ve been increasingly worried about the Hollywood obsession with biopics, docudramas, remakes, and sequels, and with Damien Chazelle joining the bandwagon, my hopes of a recovery of the spec market sink even lower than the Maldives. What does it take for someone to make an original idea? Why are people funding unoriginal ideas? Where did all my Tide Pods go? Among all these questions without answers, one thing is clear: First Man is the herald of a Dark Age of Hollywood filmmaking, and it is dreadful in my sight. Fallen, fallen is Babylon.

Seriously, I hear Scandi-noir is taking off. They have good healthcare in Norway, right?

First Man was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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