Damian Chazelle, at the age of 34, has directed four featured films. The unspoken but still brilliant Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the tension-drive jazz-based drama Whiplash, the musical epic La La Land, and this latest feature – First Man. The director has wowed with most, if not all, of his movies – particularly with La La Land which helped earn him a Best Director gong (as well as five minutes of Best Picture glory.)
The celebrated musical seemed impossible to follow up. And yet, merely years later, Chazelle excellently made movie and yet here we are with First Man.
The film serves as a biographical film revolving around Neil Armstrong’s life as astronaut before he made that legendary first step on the moon. Deciding the focus on Armstrong’s personal life and how it impacts his professional, the movie looks at the sad death of his two-year old daughter Karen and how that impacted him and his wife Janet years and years after. Following the tragic event, test pilot Armstrong applies to Project Gemini and is accepted into the NASA Astronaut programme. As the space race ramps up and more tragedies happen as a result, Armstrong is propelled forward as the man who could change history.
Chazelle deftly handles an American icon by stripping away any legendary status that he has and getting to the bare bones of why a man would want to take on such a huge undertaking. The movie is a game of two halves; an intimate portrait of a man struggling to cope with his losses and feeling pushed further into loneliness and the epic journey he takes to resolve that. Chazelle directs this well. The first half of the film may feel somewhat formulaic whilst also being necessary and important, the second space odyssey is transcendent. As the ship, propel’s Armstrong into the history books, Chazelle is attentive to centre the fous on this one man’s journey. It’s almost as if the first part of first man serves as fuel for the finale to truly land. As you are awash with imagery and homages, grand and purposeful, the weight of his life on earth hits him and the audience. First Man acts like a waiting game – an ultimate build of story until the glorious finale. As Neil and Janet are reunited in a wordless moment, only then is your emotional journey complete. That is how Chazelle’s commanding direction truly works – like the climatic and repellent drumming of an embittered student or a simple look of goodbye across a smoky jazz club, Chazelle may start simple here but he ends triumphantly.
Linus Sandgren’s gritty cinematography transforms whilst in space too. Choosing the highlight the blues and greens of a NASA-led world, Sandgren then brings to life the wide landscape of the moon in some beautiful planetary sequences using solitary blacks and dusty greys in an exquisite looking scene.
Chazelle trusts Ryan Gosling again as lead character. Gosling has had a string of movies that tackle loneliness and is one of the few actors who can show how someone feels with minutia facial movements. Gosling is near silent in Chazelle’s work and yet conveys so much that even behind a reflective visor, the intense flurry of emotions is felt.
Gosling is paired opposite Claire Foy (whose accent may have far too much moxy for a wife having to reminder her husband constantly about the affects of his work.) Foy is a ferocious addition as wife Janet who is poised as the only person who understands her husband, including himself, rather than the nagging shrew she could’ve been portrayed as. Foy is excellent here.
Justin Hurwitz, who worked with Chazelle on both Whiplash and La La Land, scooping up two Academy Awards for the latter, crafts an utterly breath-taking score here. Choosing to emulate classic Hollywood space romps such as Star Trek and The Day The Earth Stood Still, more so than grander modern space epics, Hurtwiz’ unforgettable pieces are untimely . Peppered throughout, Hurtwitz experiments with sounds and instruments such as the Theremin. Immense and iconic, the ripples of emotion that Hurwitz conducts echoes Armstrong’s emotional landscape.
A particular highlight is the astonishing sequence to The Landing. The poetic music is probably one of the best movie music pieces of all time, enhancing the moment in which Apollo 11 finally touches down upon the moon – an opus of notes and feelings that encapsulate such an iconic moment.
The more one ruminates on First Man, the more it is clear that it may be a masterpiece – another filmmaking success for Chazelle who uses every weapon in his arsenal to craft an impeccable story. Including parts of the social impact of the moon-landing as well as the grief of losing an astronaut in many of the tests, Chazelle layers the film gloriously and makes it a great film to unpack over and over again.
If you’d asked me a couple of months ago, which were the heavy-weight contenders during award season, I would’ve gravitated towards a battle between A Star Is Born and First Man. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s not as though First Man is bereft of praise and adulation, but Chazelle’s work here is unparalleled, going to poignant places that no man has ever been before.
First Man is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now