Movie Review: First Man (2018)
Two movies among my most favorite motion pictures from this decade has been Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), both directed by Damien Chazelle and each were respectively my no.1 movie for the years of their own release. Therefore it should surprise no one that when news arrived about this new project of Damien's about the famous first moon landing mission of 1969, it automatically jumped on my list of the most highly-anticipated of the year. His reunion with Ryan Gosling certainly helped hype it up.
Having finally watched the movie First Man (2018), I admit it's somewhat of a step down from Damien's previous work, in the sense that it's not going to be my favorite movie of the year this time, not that that's any reasonable standard to begin with. That said, I have no doubt First Man will be one of the movies to take away from this year, because it's pretty damn impressive. Judging from the overall critical and audience reaction, however, I may have appreciated this movie more than most.
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the dude who famously stepped onto the lunar surface and paused for a catchphrase, from his last piloting days to joining NASA, and finally the big mission. That's the most curious thing about this production. It is about the moon landing, for sure, but it doesn't concentrate on the celebrated event all the time. Instead what we got is a character-driven piece of cinema about a not-so-likable main character. That right there is the movie's biggest critical contention since it came out.
You see, Neil Armstrong isn't your typical Hollywood protagonist material, which might explain why a significant event as the moon landing hasn't got a ton of Hollywood adaptations already. He's, for the vast majority of his screentime, emotionless, deadpan and just not that fun to hang with. Yet Damien & co have chosen to present this event from this man's perspective, his years leading up to the big moment, his supportive family that he keeps at a distance, his personal loss...all of which can may lose their effect if you walk out of the theatre feeling that you didn't actually know much about or care for this character, and that seems to be many people's end impression.
And it's also here that I disagree with those who are critical of this aspect of the movie.
For my side of the argument, I refer to one scene very early on in this movie without spoiling its context. It happened after Armstrong suffered certain personal tragedy, and we see him getting through that tragedy with the type of Terminator-esque mannerism that we will go on to associate with his character, that is, until he was left alone. In those precious me-times, Neil, played wonderfully by Ryan Gosling, let his emotions fly without inhibition, and there was a helluva emotions down there. This scene, which happened so early it may have been forgotten by most audiences as the movie progressed, stayed with me for the entire experience, and it really elevated the whole thing for me.
Because whenever Neil responds to anything that's obviously emotion-inducing in a frustratingly unresponsive manner, which happened many a times during the movie, I was reminded of that one scene, and reminded how much may be going on beneath the facade that he feels he has to put on, that he may be secretly dying inside. With that impression in mind, it becomes easy to appreciate Ryan Gosling's portrayal of the character.
Moreover, Neil Armstrong is a well-known real person, whose deeds are perhaps too recent, too well-documented and too significant for Hollywood interpretations. We may want to see him break into an Al Pacino-ish self-revelatory speech circa act III which the Academy can use in their Oscar nomination clips, but it's hardly an option when Neil Armstrong simply isn't like that. He's reserved, stoic and unpenetrable, like in the movie. Would it be worth it to portray him in a way that betrays his real life persona for on-screen drama?
All that said, the movie is 138-minute long, and you do feel those minutes when you're forced to follow a protagonist who basically responds to "you're going to the moon" with a "meh". Even for someone like me who understand, support and even appreciate this creative decision, it's dramatically less effective than a traditional charming protagonist like Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, or Matt Damon in The Martian. Maybe Armstrong's characteristics just doesn't marry well with a character-driven production, so the result was never going to be perfect.
What isn't as divisive, is Claire Foy's portrayal of Janet, Armstrong's wife, who serves as the emotional fallback against the void that's Armstrong himself. Whenever the man self-switches to autopilot mode, she's there to remind him as well as the audience of what's at stake on a personal level, and it's not simply about exaggerated emotional reactions to everything. She can be just as calm and collected to life-changing events, as she's no doubt learned to be, but she doesn't force herself into isolation when it's not needed. In many ways, she's the appropriate emotional balance that we should take notes from. It's okay to show your emotions without being a drama queen.
In terms of tone and style, First Man goes for the gritty realism, fact-of-the-matter portrayal and brutality when things go south. There are obvious pros and cons to this approach: it's a responsible and appropriate portrayal of real-life events that inherently involved both victories and tragedies; the overall tonal flatness means that during the few sequences when something dramatic DOES happen, they tend to carry significantly more weight. On the other hand, it is, after all, a 138-minute movie, and this realism doesn't exactly make the time seem to fly by due to joyousness.
From a technical standpoint, this movie is impeccable. I have no way to judge how much CGI or prosthetic effect is used. For all I know, they took the crew to the moon again just to film it right. It's not an effect-heavy blockbuster, but it proves every now and then that it's an artistic decision rather than due to any restraints. Notably, this movie weighs heavily towards a sense of "immersion", and it cares little if you want to be immersed on that level. There are scenes featuring high-rate shaking coupled with thunderous noise (like in a real rocket); or nauseating, nigh-on maddening sequence of rotating.
Precaution is advised for viewers with tendencies to be affected by such extreme visuals.
If that sounds like something you're okay with, then definitely go for a large screen with the best available stereos. I cannot stress enough how much this movie is elevated by its score and sound effects. But it's not just about how sound is applied, it's also when it is not. The sheer contrast between the turbulent, deafening moment of entering or exiting the atmosphere, to the utter silence in outer space is nothing short of magical. The moon landing sequence, which alone may be worth the price of admission, features some moments of silence coupled with the highest tension. The result is an entire theatre collectively holding its breath, not daring to speak, breathe or crunch those crunchy popcorn.
This is easily the second most effective movie of the year in this regard, the first one being A Quiet Place, which is wholly built on this interactive mechanic. Congratulations A Quiet Place, you are somehow quieter than outer space.
You know some disaster movies suffer from the common problem of pacing? Say a movie about a meteor crashing onto Earth, and in the 2-hour movie, we spend the first 1.5 hours preparing for the crash, checking our watches and wondering where the damned meteor is. Then the meteor hits, and it's spectacular, it's gorgeous, it's harrowing, all that stuff, but those emotions don't tend to stick because we knew it was going to happen. It's a gimmick show, where we as audience knew what was coming all along because that's what we're here for. Sure there were things that happened prior to the meteor crash, but they don't compare in magnitude and only serve as one too many appetizers.
First Man could have easily fallen for the same trap. Let's be honest, NASA spoiled this movie's ending 50 years ago. It may be a character-driven film, but it's always going to end with the iconic, and very successful Apollo 11 mission. So is it worth it to sit through nearly two hours of build-up for the moon landing? In my opinion, hell yeah! Because this movie takes place sporadically over a span of 9 years, sometimes events happening in-between may seem random and lacking of any build-up, as it is in our author-less real life. But with Damien at the helm, there's not any sequence that stands out as mundane.
On the contrary, our preconception of what all these are leading to eventually tend to work for, instead of against the movie. In fact this movie gained me some new-found appreciation for the moon landing event, seeing how many things could have easily gone wrong, how many things closely prior to the mission having indeed gone wrong with dire consequences. Adding to that feeling is how the technology used to send those spacemen to the moon and back, although no doubt state-of-the-art for its time, evoked some snarky Star Wars quotes in my mind, specifically "what a piece of junk" and "you came in that thing? You're braver than I thought".
And holy crap is the payoff worth it. The moon landing sequence is why cinema-going is among my favorite activities. It is clear that every frame, every note of the score, every shade of color, and every lacketh thereof, emerged from a place of precise vision. I won't give away further, but it is one of those moments you'll remember the movie by.
As you might have heard, there was some controversy breaking out about this movie pertaining to the decision to not feature a scene where the American flag is planted. As an international viewer, patriotism of another country is not on my priority list, hoping you understand. I will however say I observed very few reasons to not feature the scene, having watched the movie. The flag is there, it's just not shown to be planted. The movie isn't evasive of the national political reasons behind the rushed mission, nor does it make it all about that. Being a Chinese, I do understand the sense of national pride that could be incited by a successful space mission (we haven't gone to the moon yet, bummers). Perhaps Damien and co. wish to emphasize the "giant leap for mankind" perspective instead of "USA FUCK YEAH!!!". As usual, I find this controversy overblown, and the inclusion or exclusion of the flag-planting hardly sways the movie either way.
There is one thing about the moon landing sequence that I find myself conflicted upon, and that's certainly not on your frontpage news. After all the effort to showcase this movie as a personal journey, after the emotional rollercoasters we went through with Neil's wife and children, they were surprisingly left out during the climax. Sure they weren't on the moon with him, but what about the anxiety, joy and relief that surely accompanied his mission as it happened? It was the culmination of the last decade for Janet as well as her husband, and I find the overall exclusion of her during the final act changing my perception of her role in the film. Before I'd consider her the female lead of the story, half of the universe, but by the end she's relegated to more of a supporting character. On the other end of the argument, switching between Earth and moon might break the immersion that the movie took such pains to achieve. Considering how amazing the sequence turned out to be, maybe it's best the way it is. What do you think?
In conclusion, First Man is a movie that deserves more praise than it is getting. It has the top-notch direction, acting, effects and audio handling that you'd come to expect from this crew. The most prevalent criticism this movie is receiving, being about the protagonist characterization, is one that do not fully agree with, and I have given my reasons. It is by no means a flawless movie, but the flaws plaguing the movie, in my opinion, largely stems from an irreconcilable conflict between the movie's subject matter and the direction it goes for. If this was an assignment to make a character-piece of Armstrong involving the moon landing event with a realistic tone, I believe the movie did the best any possibly could.
But would it have been a better move to structure First Man differently? Would it have fixed those issues to depict the moon landing from other perspectives? Would it have benefited from slight tweakings in its realism in favor of more traditional movie developments? Or would that have amended the flaws of this movie yet created a whole new set of problems? Admittedly these questions are beyond me, but hey, food for thought.
I give First Man an 8.0/10. Thanks for your time.