Nutshell: Shakeycam, choker-shots and Dutch angles rule the day in this dispassionate biopic. Director Damien Chazelle tries to shove Importance down viewers throats, but only manages greatness during the awe-inspiring moon landing. I came away with a headache, and the thought that Buzz Aldren and Neil Armstrong must have been real dicks. Grade: D-
“Your daddy’s going to the moon.”
“Okay. Can I go play now?”
Story: If you believe…they put a man on the moon (MAAAAN ON THA MOOOOON)…
Genre I’d Put It In: Historical Biopics That Give Me A Headache
Remake, Sequel Based-On, or Original: Based on the NASA Gemini and Apollo missions to the moon, and the men who worked on these missions.
Gotta say: I’m gonna make this short and sweet, because I’ve already spent almost two and a half hours on this spinning, dizzy mess. I’m done spending more.
Director Chazelle took bits and pieces of his favorite musical scenes and cobbled together La La Land. So he took his favorite camera stylings and cobbled together First Man. And while I’m glad I don’t have to curb my anger at total bastardization and all-but plagiarism here, Man feels like a film that took a whole lot of Important Shots from better films (think Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Fred Zinnemann) and figured he could make an entire movie with just a bunch of shots strung together. Yeah yeah, all movies are shots strung together. But Man‘s screenplay doesn’t tell a story, it shows bits and pieces of lives and history, figuring viewers’ll do the math.
It’s an absolute waste of incredible talent. As Armstrong, Ryan Gosling tries to pull some humanity and depth into the character, but given the way this story is structured it’s difficult. Same goes for Claire Foy, ill-used as Neil’s wife Janet. We’re supposed to just feel the importance, the sturm und drang of it all, rather than allowing us to go on their emotional journey with them. Instead, Neil comes off as a stand-offish emotionally closed asshole, with Janet trying to figure out whether she should scream at him or file for divorce. At least I got to see one of my favorite TV actors – Gotham‘s Riddler, aka Cory Michael Smith – albeit in a tiny role. I should mention other well known performers, but since nobody has any real depth of character, I won’t bother. It’s all a waste, talent-wise.
The one saving grace was the incredible mission to the moon. Well, after the camera stopped rattling around. The entire film is shot in a grainy, old-documentary filter, and that works, blending stock footage of real rocket launches and landings into the film. And every moment of the Apollo 11 mission, starting when the three astronauts can first see the moon from their ship’s window, to those awe-inspiring moments when Neil takes in what a momentous thing they’ve done landing on the moon, is perfection. Pity it’s the only bit of shine in this dull story.
It was really hard not to fall asleep during this screening. I had to close my eyes during shakeycam moments (and they were long – VERY LONG – moments), and when I close my eyes in a dark theater…well, you get the picture. I got sleepy, and my headache grew and grew as the film continued to wobble and rock. Chazelle, I’ve officially put you on block.
#Protip: Save yourself; re-watch The Right Stuff instead.