Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

October 22, 2018

Director Damien Chazelle Flexes with “First Man”

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When I was three, I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. When I was six, I wanted to be an NBA player. When I was eight, I wanted to be an NBA coach because I realized that becoming an NBA player was unrealistic. When I was nine, I realized that you basically have to be an NBA player first to become an NBA coach, and I’ve been stuck ever since.

First Man kind of made me want to be an astronaut again.

The film is advertised as a biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, but, more than anything, it is a reminder of how awe-inspiring outer space is. From the first scene, director Damien Chazelle clearly understands humanity’s collective fascination with exploration beyond our own planet’s surface. As Armstrong flies an X-15 plane up into the atmosphere, we are immersed inside a rattling cockpit through a violently shaky camera and a cacophony of noises. Then, all of a sudden, we see Earth’s silhouette appear in reflection on Armstrong’s facemask as his eyes widen, while the sound is muted and the camera holds still.

It was not the last time during the movie that I wanted to simply say “wow” out loud; Chazelle treats every crucial moment of Armstrong’s celestial journey as monumental and wondrous. It almost doesn’t matter who’s underneath the mask — space is awesome.

After all, Armstrong isn’t the typical charismatic Hollywood hero. He’s your average quiet guy who cares for his family but can confidently buckle down and get a job done when the pressure’s on. Enter Ryan Gosling, the man whom the film industry has decided must only play suave, charming love interests or stoic, taciturn, reluctant heroes, and absolutely nothing in between. Armstrong is firmly the latter. Gosling, as always, subtly conveys internal emotion through facial expressions despite many shots of just his eyes or of his face obscured by a helmet. Unfortunately, though, either Armstrong the man just wasn’t that interesting, or the film doesn’t really care to show us what made him interesting.

The screenplay is about as square and methodical as Armstrong’s character, essentially telling the complete story in exact chronological order, from just before Armstrong decides to apply for NASA’s Apollo program all the way through just after the moon landing (spoiler alert!). Despite a nearly two and a half hour runtime, we don’t learn a whole lot about Armstrong’s life before he was a pilot, and the other astronauts on the team feel like interchangeable, clean-cut, middle-aged white men with perfect jaw lines. The script basically boils down to “EPIC SPACE SCENE… FILLER… EPIC SPACE SCENE… FILLER… EPIC SPACE SCENE,” and you know what? That works for me.

The movie’s realism keeps us invested. The dialogue is sparse, but believable, and the cast is universally stellar, albeit understated. Chazelle, shooting the earth scenes on grainy 16mm film, often utilizes a hand-held, almost documentary-like approach. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren gets up close and personal with the characters, and this, combined with the camcorder look, adds not only a sense of authenticity but also one of intimacy, significantly outweighing any coldness in the screenplay.

But enough about the writing, and frankly earth, for that matter. This movie is about space, and the space scenes are by far the most memorable sequences of First Man, and ranks up there with those from Interstellar and Gravity. They are somehow exhilarating and intense despite the fact that we know exactly what happens. For the most part, Chazelle keeps the camera inside whatever spacecraft Armstrong is in, only giving us access to his viewpoint; by the time the movie ends, we feel like we’ve been to the moon.

At first glance, First Man seems like a sharp turn for Chazelle’s career after Whiplash and La La Land, two fictional stories about jazz musicians.This film, however, not only aligns with his previous work thematically — dealing heavily with the balance between professional ambitions and personal relationships — but also stylistically. From the final concert scene in Whiplash to the dream ending of La La Land, Chazelle excels at crafting extended sequences without dialogue during which he grabs ahold of the audience and doesn’t let them go. “I’m really interested in the plastic elements of filmmaking […] sound and image, and just seeing how those two things work together,” Chazelle explained in an interview on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “Just that sort of idea of pure cinema.”

There are multiple such scenes in First Man, and music, despite not being the actual subject of Chazelle’s film this time around, is still key. Justin Hurwitz, Chazelle’s go-to composer, amplifies the visuals at every turn. During a masterful scene depicting the Apollo 11 rocket launch, the score slowly adds instrumental layers in the moments preceding take-off, until the booming, epic music is almost screaming at the audience, “We went to the moon!!! How awesome is that?”

Damien Chazelle is rapidly cementing himself as one of the most talented young filmmakers working today. Although it would be fair to accuse First Man of being a vehicle for Chazelle to show off with a somewhat thin screenplay underneath, I’m very much down to watch Chazelle flexing for the next 50 years. He brought me back to my childhood and made me feel like I wanted to be an astronaut again. Actually, to be more accurate, he made me feel like I was an astronaut.

 

Lev Akabas is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lakabas@cornellsun.com.