The movie this week: First Man


Oh, how I wanted to like this movie. I remember watching the moon landing in 1969. I had the mission profile memorized. I built the humongous Saturn V model, the one with the detachable stages and the lunar module you could dock with the command module. I had a larger scale lunar module on my bedroom dresser. I listened raptly to Walter Cronkite. This was my jam in the 1960s-70s.

That was a good thing, too, because this movie would have been incomprehensible without that background knowledge.

The story focuses (I used that word figuratively) on Neil Armstrong. Unfortunately, the story is told with lots and lots of closeups on Ryan Gosling’s face — we are apparently supposed to figure out what is going on from the expressions flickering across that face, and the faces of the other astronauts and engineers. It doesn’t work for a couple of reasons: 1) they’re all* playing stolid engineers who clearly don’t believe in emotions. Gosling in particular is a repressed robot who occasionally has to let a drop of lubricating fluid trickle out of his eye-holes. 2) We get no context, very few names, very little about the situation. Oh, hey, there’s another robo-astronaut whose name we don’t know, let’s try to guess who it is from the pattern of pores on his nose. 3) Except we can’t actually see those pores, because of the liberal use of shaky-cam. Blurry shaky cam. Sometimes the only action in a scene is the way the lens meanders in and out of focus while the camera wobbles about.

But…big rockets, you say. There must be some wonderful thrilling big-machine-flying-into-the-sky cinematography. Not really. The guy who made this movie seems to think we want an astronaut’s eye view of three Phillips-head screws holding a bracket to an interior wall vibrating wildly. I almost walked out a few times when the shaky-cam got so insane I was starting to feel nauseous.

You want to watch a movie about the space program? Go see Hidden Figures again, or The Right Stuff. They actually manage to tell interesting human stories, and focus the camera at the same time.


Except for Clare Foy, playing Armstrong’s wife, who does express the fact that she’s getting increasingly pissed off as the movie goes on. I identified a lot with her.

Comments

  1. brett says

    I get that they were trying to go with the idea that Armstrong’s reserve and quiet was him shutting himself off and singularly focusing on the Moon Race, and that landing on the Moon was catharsis that allowed him to start really reconnecting with his loved ones again (hence the scene with his wife). But they could stand to give Armstrong some actual levity once in a while – while he was quite taciturn, he also had a memorable sense of humor according to those around him. It really would have helped this movie, too.

  2. wzrd1 says

    Due to my military duties and age, I’ve actually met some of those involved in the space program of the period as actual pilots and commanders.
    First off, the current NASA notion is bullshit. Their non-PC of the restrictive, wanting to grant sainthood by NASA administration sanitized their current image.
    Never met Armstrong’s team, hoping to bump into the sole survivor eventually, although I think he read a joke I sent about never walking on the moon, as walking is utterly impossible for us, due to our body design. Hop, jump, fall a fucking lot, shuffle a lot, walk, nope. That’s a 1G thing.

    NASA has had a long campaign of wanting to present skin and bone robots to the press, less chance of a gaffe, when funding could trivially be withheld and that remains a valid concern even today.
    Or did you forget the NASA funding cut after a certain astronaut infamously had a diaper in her car after kidnapping her lover’s other lover?

    It all comes down to attention span and width. I never bothered calculating my entire attention span, but it seems to be rather wider than average.
    Something remarked upon by both subordinate and superior earlier this week and well, ignored.
    Break a task series down into sets and subsets, figure out obstacles and benchmarks, rinse and repeat, repeatedly, using fairly simple regular expressions to the entire mishmash.

    That’s a bad day for me, a good day, I manage that without serious effort and am thinking beyond.
    Curtailing in advance the next problem.
    Or today, forgot two days of antihyperthyroid medication and antihypertensive medications and still managed to perform as promised, despite a pulse of 130 and nearing 140. And errors accumulated accordingly and were addressed within minutes, resulting in repeated visits to a physical location.

    Hero, no. Idiot that barely managed mischief managed. And mangled my way to accomplish my job mission.
    They, in my situation, wouldn’t have survived at all.
    Russian systems could, can and still can return those in orbit home alive, save for two serious and fatal gaffes, a couple of tooth loosening gaffes and otherwise, survived astonishing abuse until the reentry capsule got to take over from improperly attached junk that caused a problem.
    Such as repeated and differing reasons for service module ejection, resulting in a harder reentry. Bloody thing burned off, capsule entered proper trajectory and crew were extracted without serious harm.
    Soyuz vs Apollo capsule, tank vs jeep.

    Just a few tangental thoughts. :P

  3. microraptor says

    Seeing the promotional pictures of the movie made me think “This face intentionally left blank.”

  4. voidhawk says

    I really enjoyed this film, and the first-person perspectives REALLY worked for me. We’ve seen rockets and experimental aircraft flying and dogfighting and exploding dozens of times before, so the perspective of the pilot was a really different touch. I had my breath held throughout the entirety of the first-person scene descending the Eagle’s ladder.

    “…this movie would have been incomprehensible without that background knowledge.”

    I think that was deliberate. The filmmakers knew that the kind of people who would rush to see this were probably the people who already understand the basics of rocketry and orbital mechanics, so they didn’t waste time going over it.

    Agree about the shaky-cam though. Some of the scenes with Neil’s wife and kids were almost unwatchable at times, I think the cameraman might have been drunk.

    All in all, I thought it was a surprisingly intimate, small-scale film considering the subject matter and I really enjoyed it.

  5. marcoli says

    I liked it, and appreciated the efforts to directly convey what it was like. I do agree they could have done some things differently because rather than try to convey all the time some notion about what it was like they should remember that there was an audience out there.

  6. psilotum says

    Yeah, the whole camera-shaking-which-means-that-the-movie-is-real-and-raw thing got old about 10 minutes into The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

  7. says

    Loved the book. Once Armstrong was done with his obligation surrounding the moon flight he stopped talking about it and he never tried to maintain his fame. So when he allowed the book to be written and gave his friends and family permission to speak to the writer I wanted to read the book very badly.

    There is an Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio here he grew up. He really didn’t want it built but once the state built it he did show up on occasion for moon landing observances.

  8. says

    Armstrong was an admirable man, humble and self-effacing. That’s one of the reasons the shaky-cam was so annoying — it was so damned affected. It was the film-maker standing there saying “Look at me! Look at me! You’re not allowed to forget that I’m here!”

    I think the style might have worked well at showing the terror of being strapped atop a flaming rocket, but he kept doing it even in quiet personal scenes, diluting the impact in the rocket and making conversations feel like we’re sitting in the middle of an earthquake.

  9. says

    Shaky-cam worked great in THE RIGHT STUFF, where the launches felt real on a gut level. It was largely thanks to them using physical models that were actually doing something like what they appeared to be doing.
    Carrying that over into other sequences sounds like a mistake. I mean a “You did WHAT through the whole movie??” mistake.
    I got my hand shook by Buzz Aldrin once, at a signing. It did not occur to me then to tell him how much I laughed when I read his quote, “I was the first man to pee his pants on the Moon.” I do believe he shook with the same hand he punched that obnoxious loon with in the video footage that’s out there.

  10. bachfiend says

    PZ,

    At last an opinion of the film that I agree with. I saw ‘First Man’ when it opened, and I hated it. Far too long, and not enough of the Apollo 11 mission. Too much talking, and silence when people were talking. It could have had 30’ cut.

    I would have given it 1 star. The Australian newspaper reviews I’ve seen have been 4 or 5 stars.

    A film I’d like to see would be one based on the book ‘Rocket Men,’ an account of the Apollo 8 mission (you know, the one that first went to the Moon and orbited it. The one from which the iconic photo ‘Earthrise’ came).

  11. says

    I think, as part of a collection, along with the others that have come out, which was focused on the space program, and key missions, it works. As a stand alone… I didn’t hate it, like some people here seemed to, but I didn’t leave overawed either.

  12. says

    It’s easily the best film released so far this year and as a person who hates how the Apollo Missions/NASA are held up as the be all of American science I absolutely loved how the film grapples with the ambiguity at heart of such a venture and Armstrong himself. I had walked in expecting to hate it because I thought it was such an odd choice for Chazelle to follow up his brilliant and unfairly maligned La La Land (easily better than Moonlight on every front); I was afraid it would be him trying to go after Oscar bait. I only saw it because he directed it. The film is too intense and alienating to really make much waves in the award circuit, through obviously it will get attention, and having watched it is pretty obvious that Chazelle see Armstrong in the same vein as Andrew (Whiplash) and Sebastian (La La Land) as driven, narrowly focused men who damage themselves (and relationships) to accomplish alleged greatness. I was surprised by how much of logical step the film is in Chazelle’s filmography all things considered. Great stuff.

    It eats The Right Stuff for breakfast.

    Also I don’t remember all that much true shaky-cam; I do remember brilliant use of subjective camera work to convey both Armstrong’s perspective and his blinkered viewpoint.

  13. says

    Also we not suppose to figure out what is going one behind Armstrong’s eyes; there’s as much infinite complexity in Armstrong as there is in outerspace/universe.

  14. Matrim says

    I liked it well enough, but I’ll probably never watch it again. I liked the aesthetic, but it drug in places, to the point where I dozed for a few minutes. If you’re looking for good movies about the space program I’ll second The Right Stuff and Hidden Figures. Apollo 13 is also a pretty good watch, and fairly accurate barring minor changes for artistic purposes and streamlining, but I’d be surprised if anyone here hadn’t seen it already. HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon is also awesome, covering the whole of the Apollo Program with briefer coverage of Mercury and Gemini.

  15. says

    One thing I really appreciated about the film is that it included a recitation of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On The Moon” and not just for the purpose of denigrating it. Space buffs are made really uncomfortable and sometimes irrationally angry by it, probably because it destroys their illusion of space exploration as squeaky-clean, heroic, and utterly without any negative aspect.

    I have always loved and followed the space program, but it cannot be denied that those suffering in poverty did not all have a positive view of it, and if I were starving and systematically excluded from society, I would probably view it the same way. And some of the most prominent people who are pimping space exploration right now (Musk, Bezos, Bob Zubrin) are utterly amoral Libertarian dudebros. I think for them, the real appeal of planetary colonization is the prospect of cutting off everyone’s air to get more money. So maybe Scott-Heron’s instincts hold more truth than many are willing to admit.

  16. says

    I saw it, and had a similar reaction. I really wanted to love it, but I could only get as far as kind of liking it. The color palette was washed out and faded, like old photographs, and pairing that with the blurry shaky cam made me think that they were deliberately going for the feel of old home movies. But I don’t want to spend over two hours watching home movies! And so much of what was interesting about the space program was the teamwork, and the interactions among the astronauts and engineers, and that was almost totally missing here. They were trying to focus in on Armstrong, and I think he was picked for the mission precisely because he was boring and uncontroversial. So they got a boring movie.

    I appreciated the attention to detail, and the scenes on the moon that were steady and crisp and clear and such a relief. But if you want good story-telling, go with Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff.

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