The $16.5 million grossed by First Man for Universal this past weekend is…underwhelming. In fact it’s a significant disappointment considering the movie was touted as a massive story about…wait, what was it about again?
Much of the post-game analysis in the entertainment press has focused on whether or not the controversy surrounding whether or not the movie featured significant enough placement of the American flag. A dust-up following press screenings had conservative commentators claiming the filmmakers omitted a shot of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) planting the flag after taking his first steps on the moon. Gosling, along with director Damien Chazelle, spent much of the time since saying there was plentiful usage of the flag elsewhere, just not in one scene.
What’s been overlooked is that the marketing campaign Universal ran never actually managed to answer that initial question: What is this about?
It’s something I was never able to quite figure out. The campaign certainly emphasized the reteaming of Gosling and Chazelle, playing off the popularity of La La Land a couple years ago. And there were a lot of big dramatic shots of Gosling as Armstrong looking very serious and very somber about the risks he was taking as he, with the rest of NASA, prepared to take the space program to the moon.
But what exactly is Armstrong looking so serious and somber about? That’s never really explained.
At best we get the sense he’s conflicted about his responsibility to exploration and his commitment to the mission, the risks of which mean he may not be able to live up to his responsibilities and commitments as a father and husband.
Even that message is muddled, though. The trailers were largely free of dialogue, choosing to emphasize the visuals more than the characters. So we never see hear Armstrong explain or rationalize why he loves his family so much but his mission more.
Another factor that may have triggered audience apathy is that we’ve seen this story before. The Right Stuff, “From the Earth to the Moon” and other dramatizations have covered similar ground and, because the marketing was presented mostly dialogue-free, it didn’t actually promise anything new was being added to the pop culture understanding of Armstrong or his mission.
Some of that was covered in the press coverage following festival and other screenings, but if you aren’t someone immersed in Film Twitter, odds are good you missed a lot of it, which means you missed a fair amount of background material.
Finally, there’s the fact that we may actually be all full up of stories about the stoic sacrifice of white men. The last major movie about the early days of NASA was 2016’s Hidden Figures, which told a story about the agency’s lunar mission much of the public was largely unfamiliar with. When Hidden Figures went wide the first weekend of January 2017, it played in 1,000 fewer theaters but grossed $6 million more than First Man. That was not only because it did break new ground in its story but it also opened up the trip to the moon, something that remains a touchstone in American history, to a whole new audience by showing the diverse nature of the team that made that mission possible. Women and people of color were suddenly a much bigger part of that story, whereas the contributions of white men have been covered quite well over the years.
It’s possible First Man could have legs and turn into a decent hit for Universal, but opening on 3,600+ screens doesn’t give it anywhere to expand to if word of mouth does indeed kick in. And the competition isn’t going to lighten up. If it couldn’t go up against the second frames of Venom and A Star Is Born it may not have the strength to take on the opening of The Hate U Give and Halloween.
There may have been some in the audience who took a pass because they believed the conservative commentators who blew what seemed to be a non-issue regarding the placement of the American flag at face value. But a confusing, emotionally-distant marketing campaign coupled with subject matter that seems out of touch with current societal trends certainly didn’t help make a convincing argument that this was a better way to spend time and money than, say, seeing Beautiful Boy in theaters or watching Private Life on Netflix.