Now that the Oscars have come and gone, it’s interesting to consider some of the also-rans.
Last fall, First Man was supposed to be the movie of the year.
Its director, Damien Chazelle, is the movie mastermind who hit it big with the Oscar-winning Whiplash followed by winning an Oscar for directing the mega hit La La Land. And First Man, when first shown at film festivals last fall, seemed destined to find itself in the running for this year’s top Academy Awards.
And then the movie opened. And fizzled.
Months later, after taking a fresh look at First Man, it’s easy to see why this film emerged from the cinema kitchen a flop despite boasting the right ingredients.
The story, as the title suggests, follows the journey of Neil Armstrong to become the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. We first meet Armstrong, at work, as the pilot of a fighter jet trying to conquer the realities of high-altitude maneuvers and, at home, as the father of a young daughter trying to conquer the realities of cancer. This parallel view, of the man on the job and the man in the home, continues throughout the film, providing a degree of narrative continuity in a story that otherwise feels somewhat jumbled.
Fast forward to Armstrong’s selection to become an astronaut, starting to progress through the NASA program, conquering a harrowing experience while on a Gemini flight orbiting the earth and, ultimately, being selected to command Apollo 11 to become the first to land on the moon. Because anyone familiar with history will remember the moment when Armstrong stepped on the moon — no spoiler alert required — there’s little suspense in the finale. The only question is how Chazelle, and his screenwriter, Eric Roth, will tell the story.
That’s where the problems begin. Without a lot of drama in Armstrong’s professional ascension — except for occasional disappointments, deaths of friends, and challenges of that troubled Gemini mission — Chazelle is left without a lot of tension to develop. So he enters the Armstrong home to explore the dynamics that professional demands can place on domestic balance, giving us a series of short, clipped sequences that indicate everything is less than calm in the household.
But Chazelle never lets us look closely enough into how the family copes with the challenges of a high-profile career in space and the realities of childhood tragedy. Never does Chazelle simply let Armstrong and his wife Janet complete a conversation so we better understand how they react to pressure, how they handle devastation. Instead the director chooses to jump from sequence to sequence without letting any sequence simply settle.
Perhaps Chazelle was haunted by the memories of Apollo 13, the ultimate movie about an astronaut’s journey. Maybe that’s why he seems to go out of his way to avoid the visuals we expect in a movie about space. Or the heroism. Or the patriotism. Or perhaps, because he is directing a film in a natural way for the first time, as opposed to the stylized approach to Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle simply feels uncomfortable letting a story simply unfold. Naturally.
Sadly, the film disappoints, because we don’t get to the know the people that matter.
First Man is rated PG-13 for “some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.” The film runs 2 hours, 21 minutes. Following its theatrical run it is available on iTunes and on demand.