The Best Laid Plans…

It’s always a terrifying feeling when you can’t legally drink, but may have already lost your editorial credibility for life. But walking out of a movie theater on Thursday night, that’s exactly how I felt.

Last Tuesday on Daily Fuel, I wrote about my love for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land and Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, and my excitement for their latest endeavors, First Man and The Romanoffs. And in my characteristically hyperbolic language, I said that I had “no doubt” both projects would be awesome.

And they weren’t.

Anyone who picked up the arts section of a newspaper this weekend saw the feeding frenzy that critics had with The Romanoffs. But I found myself more disappointed with First Man. Featuring my favorite director and my favorite actor, I desperately wanted to love the movie. But I just couldn’t. It was agonizingly close to excellence, but had some unforgivable flaws in my eyes.

As I wallowed in despondency over the results, I found myself once again viewing the two projects as connected. And as so often happens in life, patterns began to emerge. From my perspective, First Man and The Romanoffs both made the same fatal mistake, and we can all learn a lesson from it.

Put bluntly, both endeavors suffered from a lack of focus. Their creators’ previous work was tight, united around clear themes with fast-moving stories. But neither First Man nor The Romanoffs was able to choose a lane and stick to it.

First Man attempted to de-mystify the moon landing by framing it as a personal journey for Neil Armstrong. The astronaut had just lost a young daughter to cancer, and the resulting depression caused him to bury himself in his work and his singular goal of reaching the moon. The film eschewed the biopic tropes of showing a hero from childhood onward, and opened instead with the death of his daughter. The idea seemed to be to focus only on Armstrong’s state of mind during the mission, removing any fluff from the story. That sounds great in theory, but in practice, the movie was filled with fluff. The 140 minute film contained some incredibly poignant scenes, but diluted them with tons of unnecessary footage regarding the politics involved in the space race, and the extensive preparation that went into the project. It was all interesting, but it took away from the personal nature of the film. It often felt like Chazelle had made two movies, and then edited them together. One personal film about Armstrong after his daughter’s death, and one historical miniseries about the nuts and bolts of the moon landing. Either one of them could have been good, but by chasing two rabbits, he caught neither.

The Romanoffs, on the other hand, caught flack from critics for its sprawling, unfocused format. Each episode of the show, which follows people who believe themselves to be descended from the Romanov clan, features a completely different setting and set of characters. It could almost be called a throwback to the 1950s, where shows like General Electric Theatre simply presented a new story every week, with no reoccurring characters. It’s a creative idea, but it almost defeats the purpose of television. We’ve been living in a golden age of TV because people realized that the medium lends itself beautifully to long form stories. Matthew Weiner is a fantastic writer, but without a story to drive forward and characters we can build relationships with, the episodes fall flat.

My takeaway from the two projects is that specificity matters. There is something to be said for choosing one goal and driving a train through it. Even filmmakers at the absolute apex of their industry can’t overcome a lack of focus. It’s a lesson we all can benefit from, regardless of our vocations.

And I promise, that’ll be the last time I guarantee a film’s quality without seeing it…

Christian Zilko

Guest Blogger:

Christian Zilko