Damien Chazelle has already built up an incredible track record so early in his life and his career. Though he is only 33 years old, he has made multiple films that frequently rank among the favourites of film fans: Whiplash and La La Land. I can’t speak for Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, but I’ve heard good things about this feature debut as well. I say this to preface my next statement, which would come across as harsher if it weren’t for the absurd benchmark Chazelle has set for himself – this is my least favourite, and possibly the worst film he has created. I thoroughly enjoyed First Man, I even found myself moved by it at points, but against his other two masterpieces, it doesn’t quite stack up.
Still a solid eight out of ten in my opinion, however.
The premise doesn’t really require an explanation: Neil Armstrong is an astronaut working on getting to the moon. Spoiler alert: he does, eventually. But rather than treating this occasion as an incredible, bombastic feat, and Armstrong as an American hero alongside it, Chazelle instead chooses to focus on the relationship between the personal and the professional, as he has before in his other movies. After the death of his daughter, Armstrong becomes increasingly insular and emotionally repressed, channelling all of his grief into the lunar mission and the adrenaline produced by its repeated failures. It is in the quieter moments that the film shines, his often strained relationship with wife Janet producing some of the best performances in the film.
Once again, Chazelle has coaxed a performance out of Ryan Gosling that is genuinely Oscar worthy. Armstrong is restrained and composed more often than not, and in the hands of another actor could have simply seemed cold; the pain expressed in Gosling’s careful movements and tired eyes elevate Armstrong to that of a tragic figure, forced through trauma after trauma for…what? Honestly, I wish the film had explored what the purpose of the moon landing in a broader context even was from Chazelle’s point of view. Rather frustratingly, the only inkling we get of whether it’s a good idea to begin with is a poem about the government’s treatment of minorities compared with funds spent on NASA, and this is never brought up again.
The cinematography seems to be some of the most divisive amongst critics that I’ve seen since a Wes Anderson movie, and I’m frankly still not sure what my position is on the matter. On the one hand, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so intensely unsettled before in a cinema outside of a horror film, as even the opening credits feature point of view shots of Armstrong spinning through the air hundreds of thousands of feet up. On the other hand, this blatant overuse of handheld, shaky cameras led me to need to leave the theatre at a couple of points because I was so dizzy. So on a practical note, if you’re prone to sickness – watch this at home.
This review may have sounded overwhelmingly negative at points, but this does not negate the fact that First Man transported and overwhelmed me in a way that few films have. Not Chazelle’s best, but what more can we expect?