The Wrong Stuff: ‘First Man’ Reveals Hollywood’s Latest Overrated Talent
I love movies and if you love movies, too, you’re constantly hoping to watch the ascent of the next great director. First Man shows Damien Chazelle is not this director. Chazelle started his career promisingly enough. He burst onto the scene with Whiplash (2014). His second film, La La Land (2015), was charming fluff immortalized for being part of the craziest moment in Oscar history when it was mistakenly announced as winning Best Picture. But as with many young directors, Chazelle has been bathed in anointing oil and elevated to A-list status before he’s mastered the craft of filmmaking.
First Man commits the most egregious crime in cinema: it’s boring. At the screening I attended, two people walked out and scores of others started diddling with their smartphones halfway through the movie. Not a good sign. America can put men on the moon but it still can’t make an enjoyable film about that accomplishment.
First Man does the impossible: it turns triumphing over the seemingly insurmountable challenges of the Apollo 11 mission into a tedious endeavor. Instead of dramatizing one of the most amazing achievements in human history, Chazelle burdens us with endless slice-of-life recreations of American suburbia circa the nineteen sixties. He confuses backstory with story. He thinks the most remarkable part of Neil Armstrong’s life was grieving the loss a child and keeping his marriage together while dealing with challenges at work. That may be true of a dentist or an accountant, but Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon. That’s where the highlight of his life lies and getting there is what makes him a remarkable person worthy of a biopic and a ticker tape parade — a parade that Chazelle, for some reason, neglects to show us. This omission is indicative of First Man. The film misses out on key cinematic moments. Damien Chazelle seeks to humanize Neil Armstrong instead of creating a dynamic version of the man. In doing so, he stumbles into a filmmaking mistake of colossal proportions. Director John Ford said, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Chazelle ignores Ford’s advice. He chooses to focus the narrative thrust of First Man on the minutiae of Armstrong’s homelife, no matter how mundane, and in the process minimizes him to the point of blandness. Nobody wants to sit through a movie about the world’s dullest man. Oh sure, we get scenes of Armstrong playing astronaut and see him doing math while his space capsule tumbles about, but watching somebody scribble down numbers in a notebook hardly makes for gripping entertainment. Hidden Figures (2017), a far superior film about the space program, made math dramatic because it was central to the story and the characters. Likewise, The Right Stuff (1983) understood how to visualize Project Mercury, the first manned spaceflight program in the United States. They both filmed the most exciting moments of their respective historical stories and left the boring shit out.
Filmmaking is all about choices. Chazelle continually makes the wrong choices. First Man is based on James R. Hansen’s official biography of Neil Armstrong. Whereas biographies can be expansive in scope because there is no limit on length, movies are constrained by time. Every scene, shot, and dialogue exchange matters. They are all pieces of a mosaic designed to elicit emotional reactions from us. Chazelle chooses to go after the wrong emotions. According to First Man, the most compelling aspect of Neil Armstrong is his relationship with his wife, not landing on the moon. This is evident by the last shot of the movie. As a result, Chazelle gives us yawn-inducing domestic scenes at the expense of showing the awe-inspiring complexities of launching men into space. We never truly feel the insanity of putting a tiny capsule atop a giant ill-tested rocket, locking men inside, and lighting the fuse. We never see the stunning — often harrowing — visuals which show up in other realistic space movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Apollo 13 (1995), or Gravity (2013).
The camera never lingers to let us wonder. Rather, Chazelle keeps it in constant motion trying to add energy and authenticity to a monotonous film. The roving camera is a trick directors such as Paul Greengrass use to great effect to create documentary-like realism. In the wrong hands — in the hands of an ex-drummer like Chazelle — this un-Steadicam camera work creates motion sickness and literally makes you want to vomit. No joke. Three times during First Man I had to avert my eyes from the screen because the images were jittering around so fast and furious I was becoming nauseous. For extended periods of time it actually was impossible to tell what was going on. More annoyingly, Chazelle resorts to moving the camera during otherwise static scenes, like when characters are standing in the kitchen talking or sitting on the couch talking. It shakes in bedroom scenes, pool party scenes, at backyard barbeques, and during funerals. The camera in First Man is always moving, floating around trying to make us feel like we’re there, listening in. That’s not creative directing, it’s jerking off.
The worst mistake Chazelle makes, though, is casting Ryan Gosling to play Neil Armstrong. Half the battle of casting is making sure the actor looks the part. Thus the cliché “straight out of central casting.” Gosling is a fantastic actor. He was chillingly brilliant in Drive (2011) and obviously Chazelle enjoyed working with him on La La Land. But Gosling is no Neil Armstrong. As written, Armstrong is so reserved he’s lifeless. Given that truth, the character of such a taciturn engineer/astronaut requires someone who believably looks like an emotionally remote egghead engineer/astronaut, not a pretty boy Mickey Mouse Club alum.
You never believe Gosling as Armstrong. He’s always Ryan Gosling in period wardrobe. Because of this, you feel next to nothing when Armstrong finally says the most famous line in human history, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” This moment should be cathartic, vindication for the struggle of the entire space program. It’s what the whole movie has been building towards. It should be dramatic stuff. It’s not. Even though he sets up the famous line earlier in the film, Chazelle misses the opportunity to tell us what Neil Armstrong meant to say: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet Armstrong was so overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, he either flubbed his line or didn’t speak it clearly enough. Either way, he created everlasting poetry. By contrast, Chazelle strips the first moon landing of all its poetry and instead gives us a pedestrian rendering of a privileged white marriage in quasi-crisis.
After watching the two hours of boredom that is First Man, it’s clear Damien Chazelle should stick to making musicals. Without songs to provide the beats of a story, Chazelle is lost. He has no sense of pace, timing, structure, or character development. His films require music woven into the fabric of the story. That’s the only way they carry emotional weight. Visual moviemaking is not Chazelle’s forte. Unfortunately for us, a film about landing men on the moon needs a director who is a master of visual storytelling, not a frustrated musician.