Chazelle goes three-for-three.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong, as he set foot on the lunar surface, marking the first time man walked on a surface not based on Planet Earth. It’s a remarkable story, one that has drawn much doubt and conspiracy theories (they definitely did go to the moon, by the way), but director Damien Chazelle always keeps the former trait of the tale in sight. While it may not necessarily be a giant leap in terms of biopic storytelling, Chazelle hits all the beats to a practically pitch-perfect degree, evoking the rightful feelings of wonder, joy and even hope for the future.
After losing his daughter, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) throws himself into the Gemini astronaut program. Along with dealing with the unbearable grief alongside his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), he and his fellow team have their eyes set on the ultimate prize in the space race; landing on the moon.
Chazelle walked into the party with a big, traumatic swagger with the blistering Whiplash. He then rose to the man of the night with La La Land, a musical (sadly overshadowed by its Oscars mix-up) rightly touted as a masterpiece. With First Man, he ascends into the sort of wild, historic legend that people at future parties will talk about. And this all happened within four years… madness.
Each of the three films feel different, but most of all with First Man, shot with a purposively grainy look even in the grandiose space scenes. There’s no nonsense from the beginning – we’re thrown into a claustrophobic ship with Armstrong, soaring along the clouds, before he yanks down on a lever and begins his ascent to just above the atmosphere. While other sci-fi features focus on super-CGI shots (not a criticism, just an observation), you’re placed within the constraints of the cramped ships for almost the entirety of the big-set pieces. The camera shakes relentlessly, feeling disorientating but not tasteless; it has purpose. Space travel is terrifying, and Chazelle wants us to remember that.
As Armstrong lands back on Earth, a general says to his boss, “Someone should ground him before he hurts himself,” but he clearly had no idea what the future held. And what better man to portray the icon than Gosling, who in one of his best performances captures a really delicate balance between tortured genius, constricted mourning, fear and the courage to keep pushing forward. A man asks him, “But at what cost?” to which he responds, “I think it’s a bit late for that question”.
By his side is Foy, who brings an irrefutable, very different type of courage. While Neil had the bravery to take that leap, Janet had to keep his world stable on the ground all on her own, through the typical misbehaving of her kids, and the hurtful distance Neil puts between him and them as a result of his passion. While she may have been cast to the side in real life, Foy’s Janet steals some of the film’s most powerful scenes (“You’re just a bunch a boys, you have nothing under control!” she says to the NASA control team). The chemistry between the pair is interesting; not necessarily fiery, not sizzling, but they feel like a match.
Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is effortlessly evocative. The grainy feel in the scenes with Foy lend the film an intimate home movie feel, like we’re watching a real family argue and play. Then you have a gorgeous wide shot in space and suddenly you feel like you’re floating there too. The stratospheric challenge of reaching the moon is contrasted with the struggles at home beautifully, bringing an unexpected level of depth to a fairly by-the-numbers true story. As it’s Chazelle in the director’s chair, you could probably guess who he brought along with him to score the adventure; Justin Hurwitz. He complements the too-big-to-comprehend shots of space with a classy gusto akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with sumptuous, smooth symphonies further illustrating the wonder in those moments.
But with regards to what you can hear, other than the script (penned by Josh Singer, which is neither here nor there in terms of quality, it sails along just fine with a number of rich scenes), the sound is utterly astounding. A standout sequence in the film sees a shuttle tumbling out of control, spinning to no end, and it is deafening. You never lose your place in what’s happening, but it’s a certainty you’ll be left completely breathless. It really is a feat of sound design and no-frills visual effects, focusing more on the practical side to an impressive level. While a film like Gravity really transports you to the terror in open space, First Man reminds you how scary it is on the inside, looking out into the deep, unreachable horizon that could dismay your trust at any second. By the end though, there’s still a very profound feeling of achievement. A breath of long-awaited fresh air, like it was all worth it.
The film is many things; magical, surprisingly intimate, remarkably suspenseful. But what it does best of all, and most importantly, is inspire pure awe.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm