Movies about space exploration have tended to be pretty strong box-office performers lately, whether they’re films based on events that did happen, films based on events that didn’t happen or films based on events that will one day happen if only we could get Matt Damon enough potatoes.
So it’s been a surprise to see “First Man,” the Neil Armstrong drama starring Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy and directed by “La La Land” filmmaker Damien Chazelle, do as poorly as it has. The film took in just $16 million last week in its first weekend of release, despite showing on nearly 4,000 screens. (In contrast, “The First Purge” took in more. Also in contrast, “Peter Rabbit” took in more.) It didn’t do much better on its second weekend — barely $8 million in receipts and bested by four other releases.
Absent a major awards run, the film seems poised to become a disappointment for its studio, Universal, not to mention its star and its previously red-hot director.
But exactly why “First Man” has underperformed has become a matter of debate in movie-business circles over the past week. Were its prospects sunk by Republican leaders complaining, before the film had even been released, that it didn’t sufficiently glorify American achievement? Or is the truth, like Armstrong’s story itself, a little more complicated, involving not just politics but subtle business reasons as well?
First, some background. “First Man,” about one of the great unifying American achievements of the 20th century and the internal conflict of the man who risked his life to achieve it, was humming along, seemingly set for a nice theatrical run after its premieres at the upscale Venice and Toronto film festivals in the late summer. That’s when several outlets, including Business Insider, pointed out the absence of an iconic moment in the moon-landing saga, with Armstrong not shown planting the American flag on the lunar surface.
Gosling himself, a Canadian, poured some unintentional gasoline on the flame when he told reporters that “I don’t think he saw himself as an American hero,” referring to Armstrong. (Whether he was putting the emphasis on “American” or “hero” remains an open question.)
This in turn set off political leaders, particularly Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together,” the politician tweeted in response both to the flag-planting absence and Gosling’s comments. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
The Rubio criticism was echoed by a number of public figures, including fellow Armstrong moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who tweeted photos many saw as a pointed response to the omission.
Chazelle defended the shot choices in a statement right after the Rubio tweet. “To address the question of whether this was a political statement, the answer is no,” he said. “I wanted the primary focus in that scene to be on Neil’s solitary moments on the moon.”
Screenwriter Josh Singer added in an interview with Variety that “by focusing on that loss and sacrifice and failure, it humanizes this person who we think of as an idol and helps us really understand that this wasn’t easy, this wasn’t superheroes that did it.” (Chazelle, via a representative, declined to comment for this piece.) And Armstrong’s sons waved aside the notion that Chazelle meant to take an anti-patriotic poke.
Many conservatives nonetheless joined the chorus. By the time it was over, the film had become as divisive as the lunar-landing itself was unifying. Even President Trump got in on the action.
Scoring points in the culture wars certainly makes the movie more political than you’d expect for a space-race drama from a half century ago. Whether it has an impact on the box office is another matter.
Some Hollywood pundits certainly thought so. In a post on the trade site Deadline, Michael Cieply asked, “What Do Words Cost? For ‘First Man,’ Perhaps, Quite A Lot,” and broke down the box-office underperformance by the word count in Gosling’s interview. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter columnist Scott Feinberg advanced the theory even more directly.
“FIRST MAN got Swiftboated,” he posted on Twitter, referring to the politically motivated set of attacks during the 2004 presidential election about John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. “I genuinely believe its box-office performance was undercut by the BS about the planting of the American flag.”
He makes a potent case, given the decibel level of the controversy and the fact that “First Man” contains subject matter that might be expected to play strongly in red states.
But this political question, attention-grabbing as it is, ignores more nuts-and-bolts movie issues that were just as likely to have a significant impact, relating as much to how and when the film was released as to what a politician was tweeting about it.
Chazelle’s previous movies (they also include “Whiplash”) all were platformed — that is, released on a handful of screens before being broadened to thousands of them. The idea is for the movie to build buzz slowly, assuredly, before being subject to the opening-weekend buzz saw of the 2,500-plus screen release, in which a shaky opening weekend dooms a picture.
“First Man” did not go that route — a substantive fact, given that the film, with its vibe of art-house restraint, was not even roundly loved by the people who saw it. The film garnered a B+ in the opening-weekend polling system known as CinemaScore. That’s solid, but hardly great. And the film ran up against stronger-than-expected competition in fellow wide releases “Venom” and “A Star is Born.” A platform release would have avoided them.
The film also didn’t do well in Houston and Los Angeles, according to a person familiar with the figures who was not authorized to talk about them. That would seem like a potential revolt by the Aldrin crowd — after all, both metro areas are key to the U.S. exploration of space (the former via NASA and the latter with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory).
But that would be a red herring. The more likely reason the film unperformed in those cities is because both teams from them were in the Major League Baseball playoffs last weekend. A movie about the 1969 lunar landing is marketed to, and a strong appeal for, older males, a demographic that is also highly drawn to playoff baseball.
It is hard to know how all these factors interacted with one another. Stripping away these layers, one is left mainly with the controversy and its antagonists. This was, said critics on the left, an example of how badly pop culture has been politicized. Of course critics on the right said the same thing about the movie.
One inference they both might have pointed out, and even agreed on: In times so divided, making a movie about unity could be the most politicizing act of all.