First Man – 5 stars
Damien Chazelle has directed two gems (Whiplash, La La Land) that could not be more different, and his third picture is every bit as accomplished and even further afield tonally from his prior movies. On the surface, the film is the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the Moon landing, but this is not the gripping, white-knuckle paean to American ingenuity that was Apollo 13 or the sweeping, ironic The Right Stuff, both exquisite films in their own right. Instead, this is the personal story of Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who, after having lost a young daughter to a malignant tumor, forge ahead in the space program, where calamity is a daily feature. It’s a beautiful, personal picture, seamlessly melding the grit and determination of one family with an overarching, monumental and patriotic (more on that below) achievement. It is one of the more moving yet subtle films I’ve ever seen.
Two addenda. First, the omission of Gosling and Foy in the acting categories for the Oscars is, in my view, the filmic version of the Saints-Rams no-call. Gosling’s driven and emotionally-stunted introvert is meticulous and engrossing, a master class in precision (think Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea). Foy, as the wife holding it all together, is simply heartbreaking.
Second, this film caught some flack for failing to depict Armstrong planting the American flag on the Moon. When asked (and never ask an actor anything), Gosling took as stab at an answer, observing that the landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement” and that he didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero.”
And . . . .kaboom! The culture dummies – this time on the right – went after the picture, as some sort of anti-American agitprop. Little Marco Rubio was particularly incensed: “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans,with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
The criticism is moronic. Films are not required to meet a quota of patriotic content. Worse, though, the charge is false. The singular American achievement of the landing is represented by footage of JFK literally crowing over, well, the race to that achievement. Moreover, there is footage of a French woman who observes, “I always trust an American. I knew they wouldn’t fail.”
As if that idiocy wasn’t enough, the left weighed in to label the film a right wing fetish object with a “misbegotten political premise that America used to be greater—and that the liberating and equalizing activism of the sixties ignored, dismissed, and even undermined that greatness” or, gasp!, potentially dangerous for reinforcing the “pervasive notion about achievement—that it occurs when people toughen up and don’t let feelings impair their judgment.”
What a bunch of fucking losers.
The movie is a depressing snoozefest built on a tissue of lies that seeks to turn the exciting space race into what the filmmakers have made up about Armstrong’s battle with personal demons.
John Podheretz is usually not much of a film critic, but he nails the problem with this movie: “First Man” is a Joyless Schlep
The only part of the entire film I liked was the brief sequence when Armstrong guides the LEM to the lunar surface. That was genuinely thrilling. The rest of the story is not only dull, but made up. What’s the point of making something up about history if you can’t even make it exciting?
I get the snooze and I get the mania about the emphasis, feedback I’ve reveived from more than a few people. Taking that aside, if possible, are the lies one of emphasis (such as “what kind of film it should have been”)? Or the areas where Podhoretz criticizes Chazelle for overreach (i.e. what Armstrong was thinking on the Moon, the extension of the discussion with the kids)?
Relevant, though certainly not dispositive