Posts Tagged ‘First Man’

‘First Man’ vs. ‘Free Solo’

“Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.”
Mountain climber Alex Honnold

The movies First Man and Free Solo really aren’t competing against each other, but there are similarities between the two. They are stories about accomplishing things that had never been done before.

First Man is about Neil Armstrong becoming the first person to ever walk on the moon, and Free Solo is about Alex Honnold becoming the first person to ever solo climb (meaning without ropes and safety equipment) El Capitan in Yosemite.

Both of the human achievements are magnificent. I think NASA’s engineers helping astronauts landing on the moon signaled a change in the history of what’s possible. It’s one of the top all-time great feats.  But as a film achievement, First Solo is the better film.


Well, before I suggest why let me preface it by saying that First Man director Damien Chazelle is brilliant. Whiplash earned all of its praise, and I thought La La Land deserved the best picture Oscar.

So what’s wrong with First Man? Why the steep dropoff in the box office after its first week? Well . . . it’s— perhaps the Vanity Fair headline said it most tactfully, “First Man is Technically Dazzling and Dramatically Dull.”

As interesting as Ryan Gosling is to look at, it’s hard to engage his melancholy stare for 2  hours and 18 minutes. They tried to internalize the external experience which I’m not sure is the movie audiences wanted to see.

Gosling as an actor may have captured Neil Armstrong well, it’s just not a character that plays well on screen. Armstrong isn’t what you particularly call an active protagonist. He’s more of a diligent protagonist. He’s an honorable Boy Scout in the purest sense. He’s efficient.  He’s stoic. A solid as a rock kind of guy. He went to the moon and then became a professor.

Perhaps it’s why there hasn’t been a Neil Armstrong-centered movie almost 50 years after his great achievement. Neil Armstrong seemed like the methodical engineer type that you want flying your plane, but not necessarily one you want driving your film.

It’s the same reason that there hasn’t been a great film made on the Wright Brothers. I enjoyed David McCullough’s book The Wright Brothers, but Orville and Wilber were good, solid, nose to the grindstone Midwestern men from Ohio with engineering minds who were single focused on being the first to achieve a sustained, manned flight of an airplane.

They are great inspirational figures, but no one has yet to figure out how to make them interesting film characters yet. Ohio born and raised Armstrong was from a small town just an hour north of Dayton, Ohio where the famed Wright Brothers did test flights of their Dayton flyer and appeared cut of the same mold as the Wright Brothers.

Go back and watch The Right Stuff (1983) and see how writer/director Philip Kaufman pulled us into the story with the Chuck Yeager character.  I don’t know how many times I’ve watched that opening sequence with Sam Sheperd (as Yeager) and Barbara Hersey— but that’s electrifying stuff.

Then Kaufman gets rid of Yeager as our protagonist and brings on the first generation of astronauts. A cast of dynamic characters played by Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, and Dennis Quaid that matched the dynamics of the visuals showing the trials and failures of the early stages of the NASA space program.

Perhaps I just couldn’t get past comparing First Man to The Right Stuff (and From the Earth to the Moon and Apollo 13).  Perhaps it’s because The Right Stuff came out in an age before the Internet and moviegoers had a thousand other distractions. Maybe Hurricane Michael hitting Florida days before I saw First Man threw me off.  Perhaps—like The Right StuffFirst Man will age better with time. Or not.

“[T]hroughout the film’s 138 minutes, the message I kept receiving was probably not the one Chazelle intended: Neil Armstrong was just a regular guy.”
Christopher Hooton/ The Independent
“The First Man Problem: What to do when your film’s real-life hero is not that interesting?”

I’m sure First Man will be remembered at Oscar time, and I’ll watch it again after I recalibrate my mindset.

The documentary Free Solo directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and produced by National Geographic is a classic man vs. mountain story, but they give it a fresh wrapping complete with stunning drone footage as Honnold attempts to do something no one has ever done before.

The goal is clear, the stakes are high. The doc touches on what it means to mountain climb without ropes or safety gear and how there’s no room for mistakes. Several well-known climbers have died over the years.

Honnold has a little bit of Armstrong’s stoic and engineering mindset. But they are able to pull back veneer a little bit and gives us a glimpse of what makes him tick. It’s almost a character study. Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, brings a spark of life and perspective to the story that is often lacking in adventure stories.

Without McCandless, Free Solo would be like one of those surf films where another great surfer catches another great wave. In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the author himself a mountain climber, asks the question why he and others risk their lives to climb Mt. Everest.

I think Free Solo stepped into that philosophical, contemplative and transcendent realm naturally and hit emotional notes that I found missing in First Man.

P.S. I know First Man was based on the book by James R. Hanson but I really wished Chazelle had of chosen to give us something we’d never seen before—a film on Dr. Wernher Von Braun. The former member of the Nazi Party who eventually fled Germany and ended up in Huntsville, Alabama. Ten years before President Kennedy made that speech about landing on the moon by the end of the decade of the ’60s, Von Braun had stated that as a goal. Von Braun had been involved in the German Society for Space Travel since the 1920s and earned his doctorate in physics back in 1934. But if not showing the American flag planted on the moon’s surface was controversial in First Man, can you imagine the uproar if a filmmaker showed that one of America’s greatest achievements had roots in Hitler’s evil plan to rule the world?

But that’s the film someone needs to make. And any film that combined Dr. Wernher Von Braun and Alabama football coach Bear Bryant together in the deep south of the ’50s & ’60s could not be boring. As Tennessee Williams once said, “I set out to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is shocking.”

Someone forward this New York Times article to Steven Spielberg— When the Germans, and Rockets, Came to Town. What makes a story like this so timely is just today NPR did a report on what’s known as “hypersonic weapons” that puts missiles on the edge of space and will change the arms race between the USA, Russia, and China. All rooted back to the work the Germans did with the development of the V-2 rocket during World War II.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: