Damien Chazelle has been responsible for two of my favourite films of recent times, Whiplash and La La Land. In my opinion, he is quickly establishing himself as one of the generations greatest filmmakers, so I went into First Man with a lot of anticipation. Would Chazelle continue his fine run of form and deliver another instant classic? Or did I expect too much, ultimately leaving me disappointed? Let’s find out.
First Man follows astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), and the years of his life building up to the Apollo 11 moon landing.
For the most part, this film is a character piece, it doesn’t have a sole focus on the technical, space mission side of the story, in fact, the majority of the attention is focused on Neil, his family and his friends. We see the strains that this space race had on the relationships in Neil’s life, notably with his wife, Janet. (Played brilliantly by Claire Foy.)
My biggest gripe with this, is that sadly, the characters are all quite bland and dull throughout, Neil Armstrong included. I don’t know anything about the man, granted, so Ryan Gosling’s performance could well have been spot on. But he is portrayed here as a stoic, introverted, almost robotic man who, on screen, is actually quite unlikeable. This immediately caused problems, because I didn’t care about him, whatsoever. Like I said, it may have been completely accurate, but I would have liked to have seen some semblance of personality of flair, just to get me invested in his character. I’m all for historical accuracy, but sometimes you need to make some changes to improve the on screen experience, Neil Armstrong definitely needed some attention here. I am of course, speculating, but I can’t fathom why the filmmakers would have allowed such a robotic performance for their lead, for any other reason than that it was true to the real man.
I can’t really say much for the other characters, because they were just, there? Like I said, they were all quite bland and forgettable. I won’t delve into spoiler territory too much, but we don’t get enough time with many of them, so as an audience we had little investment in these characters, which meant when certain events came to fruition, we weren’t as affected as we probably should have been, which is an awful shame. Some moments could have held much more emotional weight if we felt a connection with the character, but too many times it felt like a “Meh, we barely saw him anyway.” situation. Claire Foy is the standout, and if anyone in this production gets any kind of award nod, it will be her, but even her performance can’t distract from the fact that everyone else is, well, boring.
Visually, the film is hit and miss, I’ll explain why. When we are grounded on Earth, the entirety of the film is shot with some sort of grainy, 60s filter. I assume this decision was made to try and give the film a more authentic feel, but personally it wasn’t doing anything for me, it didn’t add anything to the experience, and I would have much preferred a standard filter and a sharper picture. However, the space stuff is breathtaking, seriously, I have no idea how they created some of the shots but you could be forgiven for believing that they actually shot this film in space and on the moon. I’m still not quite sure if the grainy filter was used during the space stuff, but if it was, it wasn’t anywhere near as noticeable. (Spoiler alert: they land on the moon, sorry.)
One thing I will give the film praise for is its use of camera work and sound design, especially during the rocket launch sequences. The use of shaky-cam and rapid, violent cuts and close ups really immersed me in the scene, I felt like I was in the rocket with them and I could feel and hear how disorientating the whole ordeal must have been. I know this technique won’t be to everyones tastes, but for me it was one of the biggest strengths in the film. One thing I was thinking during these sequences was how grand they would be on an IMAX screen, I didn’t see this film in IMAX, but I certainly feel it is one that was designed to be seen in that format.
The cinematography also deserves a mention, because there are some utterly breathtaking shots in this film, which have to be seen to be believed. There are genuine “Wow, that’s awesome” shots, one in particular near the end, contrasts a shot we see multiple times throughout the film, and it is epic. (You’ll know it when you see it.)
In conclusion, First Man is undoubtedly a well-made film, and I wouldn’t expect anything less from Chazelle. But, as you may notice from this review, I’m really struggling to find more things to write about, and that is because this film is quite dull and boring in large portions. I know I’m not the only person who thinks this, because I went to see it with a group of friends who all shared the same opinion, in fact, they liked it less than me! For all of its grand scale, incredible visuals and sound, there’s no hiding from it, this is primarily a character piece which fails at that level, our lead isn’t likeable, we don’t really care or root for him, and the characters around him aren’t as fleshed out as they could be, diminishing the story as a whole.
Had we not knew this true story, perhaps it would have worked better, but we all know the ending of this film already, we know they reach the moon, so attempts to build tension, no matter how well they are delivered, struggle to land because we already know what’s going to happen.
The side of the story I didn’t know about; the people behind the mission, their family, their friends, the evolution of their relationships, that was the part that should have captivated me, but a lot of us left the cinema saying the same thing… “Well, that was boring.” It’s a massive shame, and I get the impression that general movie-goers will have the same reaction.
I’m glad I saw this film, it’s not awful by any stretch, but I am disappointed, and honestly, if I never saw it again, I would be absolutely fine with that. It’s Chazelle’s weakest entry yet, a film with massive potential, but ultimately falling flat when it mattered.
I give First Man a 6/10.
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