First Man is with absolute certainty, a unique and ambitious feat in cinema, but not particularly for all the right reasons. Damien Chazelle’s new feature film, which tells the incredible true story of the Apollo 11 mission that sent Neil Armstrong to the moon, takes an incredible story and makes it feel grounded and semi-personal. However, that desire to pull these personal elements don’t elevate the film, they make it awfully dull and painfully boring to endure, where the pieces of the drama are so far greater than what is achieved on-screen. First Man is a slightly mellow embark into telling a story that should be anything but dull, making it just another small step in cinema.
It would be unfair to say that First Man fails in its regard to tell a grounded, personal story about Neil Armstrong, because in fact, there are elements in which the film succeeds at that quite spectacularly, including a personal emotional journey that concludes for Armstrong on the moon itself. However, scenes of Armstrong and his personal life, from his wife to his children, are slowed down, dull and full of plenty of awkward pauses that don’t pull the story along in any way, and just cause for agonizing dullness. The story behind it is nothing boring, but through hollow dialogue and often pointless exchanges, it doesn’t help advance the story or even allow any of the audience to care for its core characters in the way that it truly should.
The biggest flaw of the film, however, is in the scenes that are intended to cause excitement and action throughout the film, and most of that takes place, as expected, in space. But in any sequence that includes a trip to space, it seems director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren opted to strive to make the experience seem ‘realistic’. Unfortunately for audiences, this just means that the camera shakes at a rapid speed, to the point in which it’s virtually impossible to see what’s happening on-screen, aside from blurred lights and an overbearing soundtrack. Certainly, the jarring experience of being in an actual spacecraft is a dizzying experience, but it certainly doesn’t make for great cinematography, in which the scenes could have just been shaky and blurred for budget costs and no one would know the difference.
However, once the famous Apollo 11 mission does make it to the moon, and Armstrong takes that triumphant first step, it’s clear that at least some of this film was worth it. The sequences on the moon are beautiful and a true accomplishment to film. In addition, the moon sequence closes out the film emotionally, and finally puts its great character arcs and emotion it was so severely lacking.
Damien Chazelle is a director who has been a big name in Hollywood for directing only two films prior to First Man, yet has been an active discussion in the awards scene both for La La Land and Whiplash. Those films took stories about ordinary people and made them extraordinary, through compelling emotion and dialogue, which is an odd parallel to First Man. which takes some of the biggest names in history, and makes them uninteresting. First Man is far from being a bad movie, but it’s failed attempt to create excitement, faux action, and it’s dull approach to the story hold it back from being a giant leap ahead in cinematic accomplishments.