First Man seems to be the first “critics love and audience don’t” film of this year’s Oscar season. While I totally understand both perspectives, my thoughts align with the audience. This is not just visionary director Damien Chazelle‘s weakest picture; it is his first mediocre one.
The film is based off the true story of astronaut Neil Armstrong, beginning on a family tragedy and leading to his famous walk on the moon. We all know his story in space, but Chazelle uses the entire first two acts of the story to delve into his lesser-known personal life. The premise is extremely interesting but poorly executed.
Claire Foy‘s scene stealing portrayal of Janet Armstrong is absolutely Oscar-worthy. Foy’s presence on screen surpasses anything in the same category to this point. Her ability to capture raw, untamed emotion is captivating. Janet’s moment with Neil before he leaves is absolutely heart-wrenching and real. I smell an Oscar nomination…
Jason Clarke, Pablo Schreiber, Corey Stoll, Olivia Hamilton, and Ciarán Hinds are all great in their respective roles in the supporting cast; however, Kyle Chandler is the true standout in this group. Seeing Kyle Chandler is always a plus. His ability to command full attention, authority, and emotion from the viewer blows my mind. He’s one of the best actors working today.
Ryan Gosling does his best with what he is given but doesn’t deliver a compelling lead character. Neil Armstrong is portrayed as quiet, stoic, and somber throughout the film. While this may be accurate to real life, it just doesn’t make for an interesting leading role. It is nearly impossible to latch onto Neil as a character, and, a lot of the time, he came off quite unlikable. This is not Gosling’s fault, as it is a directorial decision 100 percent.
My biggest flaw of the film is the camera-style. Intense close-ups, non-stop shaky cam, and a grainy filter make the first two acts excruciatingly hard to follow and impossible for connection. It’s also incredibly hard to watch and made me pretty nauseous, especially in that first act. I attended the Thursday night late screening with a group of friends who appreciate the finer things of film making, and they all walked out around the 40-minute mark due to boredom and frustration.
I didn’t blame them.
The shaky cam does slow up and the cinematography by the brilliant Linus Sandgren takes a fantastic turn when they finally get to space. The journey of the Apollo 11 is beautifully realized and undeniably stunning, if sorely familiar.
During the space sequences, First Man has a hard time differentiating itself from other recent space epics like Interstellar and Gravity — each with similar camera placements and wide-shots. The moon sequence is peak film making, from the breathtaking landing to the first step to the emotional payoff at the crater.
In these moments, I finally felt Chazelle’s captivating style bleed through every frame. It was a joy to see him handle a CGI-heavy environment. He handled it masterfully. I only wish I felt this throughout the lengthy two-hour and 20-minute runtime, but I’m glad it was in my chair for this most important sequence.
Finally, the original score by Justin Hurwitz is fantastically epic, grand, and does a lot of the heavy lifting in the more harrowing moments. Unfortunately, some musical queues felt all too similar to Hans Zimmer’s build in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and, yes, Kubrick’s choice compositions in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It was great, but it’s been done.
In conclusion, Damien Chazelle’s space epic is a technical marvel, but a huge slog on a story level. While that does sound a lot like “style over substance,” it really isn’t. There is a lot of substance, but it isn’t nearly as compelling as it needs to be to carry a film of this scale.
The shaky-style and “closeup-heavy” camerawork truly wounds the storytelling. However, the third act alone is worth a “half-off/discount” Tuesday if your local theater does that. It is nothing you need to rush out and see. As a ginormous Chazelle fan, this picture really let me down.