I Thought Everyone Would Love First Man. What Went Wrong?

The 2018 Movie Club: Entry 12.

First Man
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Universal.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Hey guys,

One of the beautiful things about living in New York is that one doesn’t need to travel too far to have transcendent cinematic experiences that reveal something about the broader world. This is one reason why retrospectives and other film series can be so valuable. One of the most monumental I witnessed this year was the Museum of the Moving Image’s Putin’s Russia: A 21st Century Film Mosaic, which presented titles from that country made since the start of the millennium. (Vladimir Putin took over on Dec. 31, 1999.) It was a surprisingly diverse and playful retrospective—not at all the litany of political movies one might expect—encompassing sci-fi blockbusters, surreal historical epics, social dramas, crime flicks, romantic comedies, short documentaries, you name it. I worked in the Russian film industry for a year back in 1997, so that nation’s cinema is a subject near and dear to my heart, but there were movies here I’d never heard of. And the series didn’t present one simple, simplistic political narrative; its message was not Look how bad things are under Putin! But watching these films in some kind of chronological order, you really got a sense of how the wild optimism and trepidation of the post-Soviet years curdled into a dark landscape of menace and despair, for which Putin was both catalyst and symptom, but by no means the only one.

(Also, hi, cultural publications: Please cover retros and other film series, even if they’re only happening in one city—especially in an era when people have decided that local news is useless for some reason. Sometimes people like reading about movies showing in other towns and can still learn something from reading about them. Upcoming in New York: a BAM series dedicated to the pioneering queer filmmaker of color Marlon Riggs, and a Film Forum survey of the new wave of comedies made between 1969 and 1979, including a double feature of Theatre of Blood, in which a deranged actor murders his critics one by one, and Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?, in which a critic is the chief suspect.)

Kam’s thoughts about trying to show beloved movies to those who may not always be on the same wavelength got me thinking. I’m trying to remember when I myself first started to make the critic-civilian distinction. My idea of the “public at large” is kind of screwy. I was raised by film nerds, and growing up, I was often surrounded by people who took movies seriously. When I was a teenager, my mom and I would watch Ingmar Bergman movies as a bonding experience. At the age of 14, I almost got in a fistfight with my dad over whether The Last Emperor was “second-tier Bertolucci.”

So maybe that’s why I myself am so bad at predicting what movies the public will like, and won’t. Case in point: Damien Chazelle’s First Man, which I found to be the strongest film he’s made to date. I loved his hand-held, ground-level approach to such epic material. And unlike some, I was moved by the delicate bits of emotional grounding Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer added to the story, connecting the tragic death of the Armstrongs’ young daughter to Neil’s obsessive drive to push beyond the limits of the Earth, as if the world couldn’t quite contain his grief. I know people love to rag on Chazelle (let us not fight the La La Land wars again), but the versatility he’s shown over his four features as a director is pretty impressive.

I thought for sure that First Man, with its paeans to a dogged, no-nonsense, midcentury macho ethos, would be a hit—the kind of movie that could bring Red and Blue together, for a couple of hours at least. I know some believe First Man’s box office was hurt by a cynical right-wing attempt to make a controversy over Chazelle’s not including an actual close-up of Neil Armstrong planting a giant American flag on the moon while Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA” in the background, but I don’t think that had much of an effect. I wonder if the real reason First Man disappointed at the box office had to do with something simpler, which is that big movies that star Ryan Gosling tend to disappoint at the box office: Blade Runner 2049, The Nice Guys, Drive—these are all acclaimed titles that were supposed to be hits, but weren’t. I think he’s a fine actor, but maybe his broody, understated energy doesn’t exactly get butts in seats—or maybe it makes him bankable only as a romantic lead, since his biggest hits so far appear to be La La Land; Crazy, Stupid, Love; and The Notebook.

Inkoo’s observations about how the intimacy of at-home viewing enhances certain movies ring extremely true. For me, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, for all its grainy, dreamy beauty, is an example of a film that works beautifully at home but loses something in the movie theater. Not because of catty viewer responses—at least, not anymore, now that the repertory audience for a film like that is self-selecting (it’s become a Christmas staple in New York’s rep houses)—but because the film itself is so lonely, so intimate, and so weird that the window it opens onto this strange, insulated world feels like it shouldn’t be too big. We’re peeping, not plunging. Scale makes it all a little ridiculous.

But then again, Stanley Kubrick was generally not a guy who watched his movies with big crowds. Some filmmakers, or at least their editors, will often talk about how important it is for them to sit in a room with an audience while they’re still in the editing stage. Very often, they don’t even need comment cards to know if something’s working or not. Simply feeling “the energy” of the audience, they can tell if something’s hitting or not.

That’s extremely valuable, of course, but I also wonder if it can’t be limiting. Maybe there’s something to be said for a movie that pisses an audience off. I remember watching Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line opening morning, first screening, Dec. 23, 1998, at the Ziegfeld Theater, and hearing the thwapp … thwapp … thwapp sounds of people leaving their seats as the movie unfolded. I saw that picture something like nine times theatrically during its run—it’s probably my favorite film of the 1990s—and most viewings were like that. At one screening, this young couple started whispering, “This is so stupid,” right from the opening frames and were gone within 10 minutes! I wanted to yell after them, “But wait, we didn’t get to the really stupid parts yet!” Don’t get me wrong. I love the experience of being one with an audience who is enthralled by a great big emotionally overwhelming and popular movie. But sometimes the opposite works too. I don’t care how many angry walkouts I have to endure; I wouldn’t give up the theatrical experience of seeing The Thin Red Line for anything.

It appears that I’ve spent most of this post talking about older films, some of them from far-off corners of the world, and I hereby apologize for killing Slate’s traffic dead for a few minutes. (I promise to at least mention Aquaman in my next post.) But I’m curious to know from the rest of you what your particularly cherished, audience-alienating movies are. We all have them, I’m sure: those films where each new walkout seems to give us life. And were there any 2018 films that were like First Man for you—movies that you were sure everyone would love but somehow failed to make much of an impression?


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