What is more important for a filmmaker: telling an interesting story in interesting ways, or attempting to evoke the sensation that ‘you were there’? In his historical drama First Man, about the career and various NASA missions of astronaut and first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (played by a workman-like, restraint-exhibiting Ryan Gosling), director Damien Chazelle pursues the latter at the expense of visual clarity and emotional depth.
The film contains some impressively visceral moments, particularly leading up to the lunar landing: the sensational main event aided in no small measure by Justin Hurwitz’s brassy score. But the prioritisation of machine vibrations over matters of the heart makes for stultifying drama told with cold purpose. The director’s attempts to put us inside space machines results in a machine-like film, perhaps best described as a kind of high art amusement park ride.
Opening reels capture Armstrong as a test pilot flying a rocket-powered aircraft skywards in 1961, mission control at NASA concerned he will bounce off the atmosphere. Chazelle’s wall-rattling approach delivers flashes of light, incessant jolting of the frame and heavy rumblings on the soundtrack. Infatuated with the golly-me sensations of spectacle, First Man operates with the philosophy that leaving the planet is a hard-earned exercise – so the film should be too.
At no time is the emotional crater at the core of the story more apparent than when, early in the piece, Armstrong loses his two-year-old daughter to brain cancer. The question of how her death affected him is treated in an elementary way: we simply see a tear roll down his cheek, as if the director stamped “sad” on the call sheet and considered the matter closed.
It’s a shame Damien Chazelle didn’t find a better way to mix head and heart: to tell an emotionally engaging story while still hammering home all that bolt-rattling and seat-shaking.
Adapted from a biography by James R. Hansen, screenwriter John Singer (who co-wrote the excellent Spotlight and the galling Hanks/Streep vehicle The Post) is more than aware that the bottled-up Armstrong is far from an interesting character. This presented an opportunity to lean into his wife (a dignified and impressive Claire Foy) and fellow astronauts. But again the film’s visceral impulses overwhelm it, pulling us away from human detail and coherent imagery.
First Man’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year was followed by one of the silliest non-controversies in recent times. Stories started making the rounds that Chazelle had not included enough American flags, a rabidly parochial response – as if cooked up by Sacha Baron Cohen’s crackpot conspiracy theorist Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr from TV’s Who is America?
However, many if not most interior scenes could have been draped with flags floor to ceiling and we would never know, given the extent to which Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (reuniting after La La Land) gorge on close-ups. Simple mid-shots – capturing Gosling sitting at a table or standing alone in a room, for example – are strikingly scarce and the film is deliberately inelegant.
Chazelle has moved on from the visual grace of La La Land and the clever rhythmic qualities of Whiplash. The photography and editing in First Man is dizzyingly jittery; an aesthetic language agonisingly close to gibberish. It is visual poetry with bad prose: the equivalent of half-finished sentences and scrambled punctuation. This intensely idiosyncratic style counters the plain-featured protagonist, though the trade-off hardly seems fair.
David Bowie’s Space Oddity may not be, or want to be, a nuanced examination of space travel. But the great singer/songwriter landed at least one brilliant context-changing line: “for here am I floating in a tin can.” In an instant all the gloss, glamour, legend, largesse of space travel fell away, replaced by a lonely existential image of human insignificance and vulnerability.
At its best, First Man works like those words, expanding our ways of thinking with simple truth. Gosling’s matter-of-fact performance accommodates the film’s unquestionable sincerity, evoking the kind of American we don’t hear a lot about these days: smart but unpretentious; calm but decisive; polite but firm. It’s a shame Chazelle didn’t find a better way to mix head and heart: to tell an emotionally engaging story while still hammering home all that bolt-rattling and seat-shaking.
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