Why exactly would Damien Chazelle — director of Whiplash and La La Land — want to make a movie about astronaut Neil Armstrong, a man who possesses no discernible interest in jazz music? One indication comes early in Chazelle’s new film, First Man, when Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) faces interrogation about why he wished to continue in the space program. The normally plain-spoken Armstrong (provided he even speaks at all) answers with an uncharacteristically poetic response: the atmosphere. He’s enchanted by the layer of gases surrounding the earth because no one can see them from their vantage point on the ground. But Armstrong, if he pushes himself, can be among the select few to actually perceive and experience the majesty of the atmosphere.
“Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem,” sang Emma Stone’s Mia in Chazelle’s last film, La La Land. The distinction could just as easily apply to Armstrong’s then-uncertain quest to be the first man to walk on the moon. And, for that matter, it could also describe Chazelle himself, the 33-year-old wunderkind. His belief that he can achieve grand heights if he’s crazy enough to aim for them enables him to make movies at such high-octane intensity across genres and styles.
With Whiplash, his first major film, Chazelle successfully translated the polyphony of orchestral jazz music into a cinematic symphony with rigorously precise editing. His direction of La La Land went in an entirely different direction, capturing the representational language of dance in gorgeously fluid long takes. This meticulousness at both ends of the spectrum, composition and montage, reflects the determination behind the camera. That self-confidence has since become as much a liability for the public reception of Chazelle’s films as it is a strength for the filmmaking itself. Witness the prevalence of the “I saved jazz” meme in reference to La La Land growing so strong that Gosling even mentioned in his Saturday Night Live monologue or the tweets following #Envelopegate suggesting the mix-up served as Chazelle’s supervillain origin story.
I don’t buy the popular notion that Chazelle’s filmmaking bravado comes from having a chip on his shoulder (plus, I’ve heard from two friends who have met him at various stages in his career and found him genuinely kind and charming). First Man does not feel like a work made by someone who has something to prove. Being the youngest person to win an Oscar for Best Director relieves some of that pressure, one must imagine. The film makes for a fitting addition to Chazelle’s filmography given Armstrong’s relentless drive for superior achievement and emphasis on doing the work necessary to meet his ambitious goals.
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In Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle focuses on what the quest for perfection looks like for the people trying to attain it. The films rarely deviate from the perspectives of the people in the ring fighting for their art, even immaturely so. Chazelle’s blind spot has traditionally been the inability to reconcile the pursuit of one’s professional passions with the possibility of a balanced life. It’s all or nothing for Miles Teller’s Andrew Neimann from Whiplash as well as Emma Stone’s Mia and Ryan Gosling Seb from La La Land.
First Man places an opposite, if not necessarily equal, force in Armstrong’s way in the form of his wife, Claire Foy’s Janet. The premature death of their young daughter, Karen, forces them both to acknowledge the fragility of life. Fittingly for the loose, Malickian style in which Chazelle films their home life, the couple diverges in their response down two paths. Janet responds by cherishing their family time together, while Neil suppresses the pain in order to let it fuel his commitment to his work. Naturally, this causes tension between them. Chazelle’s willingness to entertain challenges of his professionally-focused ethos already feels like a step in the right direction for the filmmaker.
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The film’s insistence that Neil Armstrong drew significant resolve from the death of his daughter does feel like a bit of a stretch, however. This trope of anti-biopics eschewing cradle to grave chronology in favor of homing in on a single event that defines a public figure has now become as tired as the clichés it displaced. Even if it’s true, First Man does not sell that reality well. A lot of this falls at the feet of Gosling, who retreats into his post-Drive stone-faced stoicism. Other directors — Nicolas Winding Refn, Derek Cianfrance, Terrence Malick — have been able to draw more out of Gosling’s quiet brooding. Here, Chazelle does not. Armstrong is far from a passive character in First Man, but Gosling provides far too little to latch onto given that the film spurns any mythology surrounding him or astronauts.
What First Man might lack in emotionality, Chazelle more than compensates for in spectacle. He does not maintain the same level of aesthetic purity as in prior films, a notable break for such a doctrinaire filmmaker. Boiled down to an essence, First Man feels like Gravity as directed by Paul Greengrass — with a nod to space epics 2001: A Space Odyssey and Interstellar here and there. It’s a film that captures the vast expanse of the firmament while also conveying the beat-by-beat terror of being the trailblazers of the sky. Chazelle’s camera places the audience inside the claustrophobic spaces with the astronauts, with tight framing and repeated shots of their tiny windows outside the vessel emphasizing just how little knowledge the airmen had at any given moment.
Chazelle succeeds at bringing a sense of danger back to the Space Race with his extreme close-ups and fragmented, frenetic editing. His phantasmagoric light show is a true cinematic marvel. By the end of First Man, it’s unclear if Chazelle wants viewers to cheer on the achievement of walking on the moon — or just breathe a sigh of relief.
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