Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.
Most of the time when I write a review, I start off with a synopsis of the work I’m discussing. But since the film I’m critiquing, First Man, is about the Apollo 11 Moon landing, an event that literally everyone on Earth knows about, I figured it’d be better to just save myself some time and launch into my thoughts on the filmmaking. Because, trust me, I have quite a few.
So, getting right into it, what makes First Man unique, in my opinion, is how subjective it is. What I mean by that is, most films about space travel, or anything really, are shot in a way that feels objective, like an omniscient third party is viewing the events. Lots of wide shots from a distance usually mounted on tripods or cranes. If there is camera movement at all, it’s typically done to track the characters through the scene. This gives the audience a sense of detached safety, a visual reassurance that we are spectators to an event that can’t harm us. First Man isn’t like that. All of the spaceship scenes are done in the cockpit, with very little cutting to the outside world. There are tons of close ups, be they on the actor’s eyes, or the controls, and the camerawork is very, very shaky. This puts us in the same position that the characters are, and removes the subconscious sense of safety that shooting things in a more objective manner might do. As a result, the spaceship sequences feel utterly terrifying. The opening scene of the movie, where we witness Neil Armstrong failing to re-enter the atmosphere, really hooks you, precisely because of how it’s shot; inside the cockpit, and with very little cutting to his surroundings. I’ve heard some critics describe this film as “detached,” and while I would agree that the storytelling is, the filmmaking most certainly isn’t. It 100% wants you, the viewer, to feel what the characters are feeling, with things like close ups, POV shots, and shaky cam. And, in the action scenes at least, it succeeds.
It’s on the human, story level, however, that First Man isn’t as adept at engaging spectators. Which is ironic, because something that the marketing, and the director, have gone out of their way to emphasize is that this is not a film about the moon landing. It’s a film about Neil Armstrong. And, to be fair, it kind of is. Most of the film takes place on Earth, and focuses on Armstrong with his family. You see him mourn the death of his daughter, him and his wife move to a new place, make friends in the space program, and even lose some along the way. All of that lends to compelling drama. But the film, like it’s stoic protagonist, never leans into that drama. For instance, you see Armstrong lose his daughter in the second scene, literally right after he manages to re-enter the atmosphere. At this point in the film, you don’t know her name; you don’t know what she likes, or what her relationship with her father is. Hell, prior to this scene, you didn’t even know she existed. You just get a shot of him hugging her, and then, a few seconds later, a shot of him lowering her casket into the ground. And then the film just keeps going. And this cycle of dramatic event followed instantly by business as usual happens continuously throughout the story. Time and again, things happen in this film that, in other movies, would cause some major change, or, at the very least, catalyze a major scene, but, in this film, are just brushed aside in favor of getting back to the mission. As a result, those parts of the movie that aren’t the flying sequences feel like a montage, like a series of events told to us as quickly as possible so we can get back to the good stuff. This is made worse by the editing, which greatly condenses the passage of time. In one scene, for instance, Armstrong’s wife is not pregnant. In the very next scene, just a few seconds of film later, however, she is. And in the scene right after that, just ten seconds later, she’s given birth to a son. Now we, as rational human beings, know that, in real life, several months have passed in between these scenes. But it doesn’t feel like that in the film. As such, her having a child doesn’t carry the emotional weight it probably should. Another thing that contributes to the non-space stuff in the movie feeling like a montage is the fact that almost no conversation lasts longer than 30 seconds. There aren’t really scenes, meaning confrontations between two people with differing goals that end with some kind of significant character, or story, change. There’s one towards the end, where Armstrong’s wife tells him that he needs to sit their sons down and tell them that he may not come back alive, but that’s about it. For the rest of the movie, major character beats are just rushed through in favor of returning to NASA. Now, in fairness, some of this is clearly deliberate. Armstrong, both in real life and the film, is a very stoic man who doesn’t want to show his emotions. But when you watch the movie, it feels more like the filmmakers just don’t care about the family dynamic enough to dwell on it. So, in the end, some excellent, subjective filmmaking and strong performances make you feel what the characters are feeling, but then absolutely nothing else in the flick does. Which is confusing. Did I regret watching this movie? No. But will I ever see it again? Probably not. Make of this what you will.