First Man (2018) by Damien Chazelle
Review by Zach Dennis
Before I begin with First Man, no, Neil Armstrong doesn’t use the power of jazz to reach the moon.
Upon announcing that this would be his follow-up to La La Land, I was skeptical of director Damien Chazelle going this route following the aforementioned movie and Whiplash as First Man reeked of Oscar desperation — something the director didn’t need since he had just won a best director award from the Academy — not to mention it felt like an unambitious project for a generally ambitious director.
The actual movie didn’t change my mind much. As you can surmise, First Man follows Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as works his way up from engineer to lead astronaut on the Apollo 11 flight where he became the first person to walk on the moon on July 20, 1969. Rounding out the cast is Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, Jason Clarke as fellow astronaut Edward Higgins White and Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin.
Josh Singer, most recent known for his work on Spotlight, wrote the script and he approaches the story with a relatively workmanlike vigor that would seem to gel with Chazelle’s fascination with the process of becoming “great.” Practice, repetition, failure and doubt mold the main characters of Chazelle’s previous features, and it is no different here. Gosling plays Armstrong with a detachment that is supposed to reveal both dedication and focus, but feels more aloof — and honestly, kind of just rude.
Even more at battle are Chazelle and Singer as the former tries to infuse the style and bravado that ensnared Whiplash and La La Land while the other just wants to tell the story in the most optimal way possible. This creates a tension that almost causes a remove from the audience as one moment, we are asked to focus on a minute point being expanded on prior to a mission and the other, lens flashes and kinetic direction whirl us into an almost fantastical space as Armstrong inches closer and closer to his goal.
Chazelle finally overcomes this by the movie’s final moments as the arrival on the moon (much to the sagrign of conservative politicians) focuses on the pure amazement and wonder of walking on the moon rather than hollow patriotism. I saw one Letterboxd user remark that Armstrong’s stringent personality for the majority of the movie is because he is a man raised to conceal emotions and restrain from expressing anything, only to be thrust into this situation no human has ever had to encounter before and is overcome by the sheer majesty of space and being on the Moon.
It’s a nice thought, but not one that I totally buy even if I do find the moon sequence to be worth the price of admission. Overall though, it feels like a sideways move for Chazelle and one that will surely appeal to those looking for promotion of the moments when the United States actually tried to lead the way in innovation rather than wallow in nostalgia and self-aggrandising nationalism.
It did piss off Marco Rubio so we have to love it for something.
While this movie will surely generate crowd praise, I think this next one could be a sleeper hit on the indie scene due to its stars and the charm of its narrative.