First Man (2018)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Josh Singer
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Damien Chazelle came into the film industry with a bang. In 2014 he came out with a low budget film about a boy and his dream to be a great drummer. What he did not expect was the tremendous amount of support and praise to come his way. Whiplash was a huge success, and it is my personal favorite of his. I got excited for what more he could offer with more experience and a higher budget. Two years after Whiplash, in 2016, he came out with another music based film, La La Land. Now, I am really not a fan of musicals at all, but Chazelle made one that was so good that I could not deny its greatness. The film was the buzz of the year, and it was a huge contender for the Oscars. This was a man who was still in his early 30s and was able to create two critically acclaimed films in a matter of 3 years. His potential seemed endless. However, both those films had one thing in common, music. We all knew that Chazelle had a gift for incorporating music with film and exploring new ways to integrate both mediums. So when I heard he was coming out with a biopic about Neil Armstrong, I had no idea how it would come out. Was he a fluke? Was he a one trick pony? Can he do something other than music themed films and it still be as good? The answer to all those questions no, no, and yes but not as good.
First Man was a big surprise. A biopic about Neil Armstrong was the last thing I expected from this up and coming director. It is usually something I would see from someone just trying to get some Oscar buzz at the end of their career. But I was still hopeful, because I knew he was extremely talented. So was he able to live up to the standard of his previous two films? Well, no, unfortunately. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad film. It means that his other two were so good that this didn’t quite reach that status, which is a huge compliment in my eyes. So although in my eyes this was a step back for Chazelle, it was still an important film for him. Because it proved that he was not a one trick pony. He is able to do other things and be good at it.
I want to first start with what I believe is the biggest flaw of this film, and that is focus. The film was really all over the place with what it wanted the audience to focus on. I am not talking about focus in the sense of camera and framing, I am talking about the plot and what is and isn’t important. I think the biggest downside for me was a lot of the side relationships that were placed throughout the film. There was not enough character development for me to feel for the other astronauts that kept dying due to accidents. I remember the first one that passed away in a plane accident, when it was announced in the film I actually though “which one was that?”, I seriously couldn’t even remember how that guy looked like, and now the film is making me go through his funeral and forcing me to feel as sad as Neil, but I feel nothing, because that character wasn’t even developed enough for me to remember his name as I am writing the review. Even Ed White, who had a bigger impact in the film, I did not feel any big impact when he and the other astronauts passed away in the fire accident. I think these events were important in the journey of Armstrong and how it shaped him as a person, but the film put so much emphasis on it that it just missed the mark on what it needed to focus on. I don’t think a lot of other people will have the same complaints as I have about the film. Some may find these side relationships as an integral part of the film. However, I just felt like it derailed from what I wanted to see. It felt like a nuisance, and all I wanted to see was the space missions and Neil’s relationship with his wife and kids.
Now that I talked about my biggest gripe about the film, I can move on to what I enjoyed, and what made the film for me. First of all, I really enjoyed the dynamics between Armstrong and his family. I just wish there was more focus on that, because it would have made that final scene more impactful. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the character development that occurred between Neil and Janet. With each blow, Neil was getting more reserved and more focused on his job. He just wanted to go there. To him, it wasn’t about being the first man on the moon. It was about getting there and finally breathing that sigh of relief. That all that tragedy, torment, and death was worth it. He wanted the moon to be worth all the suffering that happened to him thus far, and he knew that stopping was never an option. In the meantime Janet knows that her husband needs this to happen. She knows that he will not rest until the mission is over. However, she slowly realizes, as the mission launch gets closer, that this may be the last time she sees her husband. So her thought process changes, and she wants him to make these final seconds with his family count. This constant struggle keeps the film interesting and it all culminates into the final interaction he has with is sons about the fact that he may never come back. The handshake that his son gives him is symbolic of how distant their relationship has become. As the mission to the moon is getting closer and closer, Neil’s relationship with his son keeps getting further and further away. That is what he realized as he shook his son’s hand and he is too far into it, for anything to be fixed.
Although I really enjoyed the family dynamics of the Armstrong’s, the film’s strongest aspect is definitely the space missions. Chazelle did an incredible job in immersing the audience with what the astronauts were experiencing. The best example of this was the Gemini 8 docking scene. That whole sequence was an incredibly technical and immersive one that I was holding my breath during the entire time. And as the scene ended, I gave out this huge sigh of relief. That is what I call immersion. When I am sitting in a comfortable cinema seat, yet I am still on edge and my palms are sweating for some fictional characters on a screen. Chazelle took an interesting approach to conducting these scenes. One was the use of the camera. He would switch between first person view and close up shots depending on how he would want us to feel. The first person view put us in the shoes of those astronauts. It gave us that claustrophobic sense these aircrafts. How tight the space is. How limited wiggle room there is. And how incredibly daunting all those buttons look around you. I also really enjoyed the use of the shaky camera. It increased the immersion and made us feel how chaotic these missions were. Most films fantasize space travel and make it seem easier or calmer than it actually is. Chazelle gave it to us as close as possible. Furthermore, I loved his use of sound. The rattling of the metal plates, along with the intense beeping of the alarms, and the constant drag of the spacecraft as it is hurdling in space just brought the whole experience to another level. Chazelle has always been strong with sound and music, and he keeps pushing the boundaries with this aspect. Finally, I want to touch up on the final mission. A big wish of mine was that they would have put more time into it as I explained previously. I think the first third of the film was not spent wisely, and more time could have been allocated to the final mission. I still did enjoy how it was shot. The first person shot of Neil looking at the Moon’s surface was breath taking. It felt so desolate, and lonely. Just how it actually is. Chazelle did not purposefully make it seem grand or unbelievably majestic. He showed it to us plain and simple, its empty, and its dark. I loved that approach, and it really felt appropriate for what Neil was feeling. He needed to go to the loneliest and most desolate area just so that he could release his emotions. A beautiful sentiment, and I think a great way to end the film.
First Man was a big surprise. I did not know what to expect going into it. I did not know how the director of both Whiplash and La La Land was going to tackle a biopic about the first man in space. I was pleasantly happy to see that he was not just a fluke and was genuinely talented in many genres of film. However, I do feel like he missed the mark on certain aspects. The film lacked focus on what was important, and what was worth telling. This constrained the timing on certain scenes, such as the final lunar mission and did not give it the time it truly deserved. Nevertheless, what I did enjoy from the film I really loved. The immersion due to the technical abilities brought on by the camera work and engrossing sound quality was incredible. It gave light to how these missions are usually fantasized by Hollywood, and how Chazelle threw away that fantasy and gave us the hard truth. To sum up, First Man is a step back for Damien Chazelle in my opinion. But it was still an important film for his career. It seems like there is no stopping this man. And I for one will keep an eye out for his next project. I can’t wait to see whether or not he will push the boundaries of film once again.