They Got There Eventually - First Man
Damien Chazelle is Hollywood’s latest wunderkind. He is the youngest person to ever win Best Director and comes into this year two for two, as Whiplash (my favorite movie of the decade) and La La Land were almost universally praised. The man knows how to make a movie. First Man is every bit the technical achievement of those prior movies, but something about the story feels flat. To be clear, this is a technical marvel. The practical effects used to recreate the moon and the journey there are awe-inspiring. The original footage of the moon landing is so primitive that seeing this version is jarring and incredible. But it took us almost as long to get to that as it did in real life. The first hour and a half is spent with our feet firmly planted on the Earth and therein lies the problem.
The film opens with touching sequences from Neil Armstrong’s (played by Ryan Gosling) family life. His family is both growing and shrinking with the loss of a child. Throughout the movie, his daughter’s death, and the deaths of people around him in the space program, cause his wife (played by Claire Foy) to grow more and more concerned about her husband’s well-being. Never emotional, Armstrong focuses on his work and tragedy seems to strengthen his resolve to help NASA reach its goals.
As the Russians have beaten the Americans to every step along the way, NASA turns it focus to reaching the Moon first. This comes with great personal sacrifice and the film tries its best to show the human toll of the space race. The central theme of the movie is that these were extraordinary people who went home and dealt with the same mundane issues as everyone else. When they finally do reach the Moon, it helps to drive home the point that it was a very human and universal achievement.
Though the film had a clear goal and pretty much nailed it, I kept wondering how much better this would have been if we had just spent two hours on the Moon. While humanizing, Armstrong’s home life and the run-up to his historic mission didn’t quite have the teeth to carry a feature-length movie. The movie never really dragged, but it also never really moved. It felt like we were just sort of standing still until the inevitable mission reached us.
The thing I respect most about the film is the technical achievements. I fully acknowledge this movie was hard to make. I am not, however, convinced that it was necessary to make. Nothing in this story was compelling enough to justify its existence, but the final sequence is truly spectacular.
Directorially, we have another entry in Chazelle’s canon that does not even attempt to truly grapple with the times. This was the tumultuous 60s and we basically only see the inner lives of our characters. It almost seems like they exist in a vacuum devoid of political intrigue and concerns. While this is certainly Chazelle’s choice to make, it is starting to feel like a pattern and a weakness.
Ultimately, I am not sure who to blame for the lackluster bulk of the movie. The performances were not special, the screenplay fizzled and overall, it just didn’t land.
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