I am a Damien Chazelle fan. Whiplash was my favourite film of 2014, and 2017’s La La Land retaught me everything I thought I knew about musicals. Chazelle is one of Hollywood’s youngest and most exciting directors. However, when I heard his next project was a Neil Armstrong biopic I was a little uncertain. Would a non-music centred, seemingly pedestrian source material live up to Chazelle’s impressive back catalog?
The short answer is no, but that doesn’t make First Man bad by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s probably one of the best films of the year so far.
Biopics are well-trodden territory for Oscar season films but credit where it is due, First Man is far from a worshipping puff piece for Neil Armstrong’s legacy. Ryan Gosling’s frankly astonishingly nuanced performance develops the mythic figure of the man on the moon to something altogether more down to earth. He is a damaged, reckless, dangerously driven man, who is content to push everyone away from him at a moment’s notice. Unlike many other biopics, the impression given of this mythic figure in recent history is decidedly mixed.
The same could be said about the cinematography. Although Chazelle’s cinematographer has shifted project to project, his visual style under La La Land’s cinematographer Linus Sandgren has distinctly shifted to a documentary style of filming. Shots stay uncomfortably zoomed in, handheld and shaking around the characters as if someone was filing them with a Super 8 camera. The multiple sequences in spaceships or other vehicles owe a lot to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Interstellar, both for their cramped oppressive spaces and spine-chilling sound design.
The interior of the ships are scary places to be. The steel creaks and bends as the G-force increases, the vibrations reaching such a fervour that it’s hard to believe the astronauts wouldn’t get a concussion. This eye for the detail is distinct for Chazelle, but the same does not hold for the writing. This is the first film Chazelle has directed that has not been written by him too, and it shows. Although the focus on character remains, gone are the endings that reach a revelatory emotional climax. Instead, First Man’s writer Josh Singer brings along the same subdued, quiet sensibility that his other screenplays (Spotlight, The Post) brought to screen. It’s still enjoyable and powerful, but not the extent a Chazelle screenplay would be.
First Man is a strong film that has a decent chance of collecting a handful of nominations come next March at the Oscars, especially for Gosling’s central performance, but leaving the cinema I couldn’t help feel just a little disappointment that it didn’t reach the heights of Chazelle’s other films.