Synopsis: So there’s this guy Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) who, get this, goes to the bloody moon!
1. The cinema of Damien Chazelle tells one story – an obsessive punishes his/herself in the search for perfection. For someone who’s Hollywood career has been so charmed (he’s only 33), Chazelle’s motto appears to be ‘nothing good ever comes easy’. It’s in the literal blood, sweat and tears shed over the course of Whiplash and the sacrifice of the relationship at the altar of artistic success in La La Land. In that regard, First Man (though scripted by Josh Singer) fits snugly into Chazelle’s oeuvre, not only in its general theme and story structure, but also in the sterling quality of every facet of its production. First Man is another (almost) unqualified success for someone who is making a strong case to be one of the premier directors of his generation, featuring Chazelle’s signature visceral, muscular direction and his capability to plunge the viewer into the emotional intensity of the moment.
2. The main tool Chazelle utilises to achieve this you-are-there intensity is an almost claustrophobic intimacy. In this aspect, First Man is a moonwalking contradiction – an epic told in the smallest scale. Awe-inspiring shots of the cosmos, de rigeur in any space movie, are kept to a bare minimum. Instead for most of it, we are locked into Armstrong’s cockpit and helmet, catching brief glimmers of wonder through the windows. It is an extraordinarily effective technique to achieve a you-are-there realism, locking us in to Armstrong’s uncomfortably human perspective of the vast expanse surrounding him. Most of the film focuses on the extremely analog technology fuelling the entire crazy mission, and we feel every shudder and creak of the metal contraptions that separate our heroes from the vacuum of space. If there is a slight criticism, is that after a while, one shaky cam shot of dials and knobs begins to look very much like another shaky cam shot of dials and knobs, and diminishing returns do set in (at least until the moon landing sequence, which makes full use of a semi-literal ticking clock to rev up the tension regarding an event that we know will happen).
3a. And yet, for as locked in as we are to Armstrong’s point of view, the film holds its protagonist at a distance even further than that of the moon to the Earth. There is an arch cleverness in the film’s refusal to humanise Armstrong and play by the rules of the biopic. Brave, indeed, to sketch a portrait of a hero like this, painting him as prickly, private, and so emotionally unavailable that he risks his life and family just so he can arrive at a destination far away enough from humanity to properly mourn his daughter.
3b. Which brings us to the next question. Can Ryan Gosling act? Or is he a new Clint Eastwood (originally slated to direct this film), blessed with the ability to communicate great feeling simply by not doing much of anything? I am, of course, being facetious, for Gosling’s career has proven that he is an immensely gifted actor, and never more so than when he is underplaying emotion. This role is a far better fit for Gosling’s strengths than La La Land‘s Sebastian (though there are few better in Hollywood at playing smarmy), allowing the viewer to project oceanic depths onto the barest of facial expressions – the tightening of a jaw, the quickened blink, the slightest of hesitations. First Man, like Drive or Blade Runner 2049, understands how to weaponise Gosling’s signature blankness, especially to convey the weight of his grief at all the death that eventually brings him to that one small step.
4. I have largely avoided the Claire Foy hype train up to now, largely because I have much better things to do with my time than watch twenty hours of Elizabeth II being condescending to people and trying to get Philip to be less racist (I assume that is what The Crown is about). After this film, all I have to say is that I’ve bought my first class ticket and am ready for the ride. Foy is nothing short of astounding in First Man, taking the thankless role (both in the film and in real life) of ‘the wife’ and turning in a tour-de-force of a performance. The fire to Gosling’s ice, Foy’s imbues her Janet Armstrong with grit, warmth, and energy, and there is a strong case to be made that she is the stealth protagonist of the film, as its sympathies more often than not are weighted towards her, especially in her memorable monologue (bound to be played on an Oscar nomination video soon) calling NASA “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood”. Also, unlike some British actors (cough Benadryl Cummerbund cough), Foy rocks a note-perfect American accent, which grants her extra points in my book.
5. That line, along with a scene of Gil Scott-Heron reading his poem ‘Whitey On The Moon’, reflects a sense of ambivalence that has become a calling card of Chazelle’s. Is it possible for an auteur‘s main point-of-view to be that he has no point-of-view? Whiplash stayed steadfastly inconclusive as to whether Fletcher’s, shall we say, ‘aggressive’ pedagogy was good or bad for Andrew’s development as a musician, La La Land played its ending right down the line between bitter and sweet, and First Man fits right into the same pattern. Though the superlative moon landing scene seems to indicate to some extent that all the sacrifice was worth it for the sake of that one giant leap, the final scene brings us back to uncertain territory, with a powerful (though unsubtle) visual metaphor literally reflecting the human cost of Armstrong’s achievement in his estrangement from his wife. I wrote before about negative capability in my retrospective of The Leftovers, but it is hard to determine whether Chazelle’s refusal to stake out a clear, conclusive position in his films is a stroke of artistic inspiration, or just means that he was born with a heart full of neutrality.
6. What is beyond doubt, however, is Chazelle’s technical mastery. The man knows how to make a film, and his capacity to blend technical wizardry and storytelling into a sensory experience is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese. First Man is littered with countless moments of directorial flair, from a beautiful moonlit shot of Gosling framed by weeping willows to one of the finest cuts I have seen in years (from the hellish conditions inside the doomed Apollo 1 to outside, unchanged except for a single puff of smoke). Yet, I still cannot shake the feeling that Chazelle has not found his own voice yet, and may never reach his full potential until he does. Maybe it’s the ambivalence mentioned in paragraph 5, maybe it’s the fact that he still seems to be too overtly copying his heroes (playing a waltz during a space docking sequence a la Kubrick or the very Tree Of Life-era Malickian camerawork during the idyllic scenes of Armstrong bonding with his family). This is probably why Whiplash remains his finest work, rooted as it is so closely in the director’s own passion and experiences. Still, for someone so obsessed with obsession, it really is only a matter of time before Chazelle produces that unassailable, bona fide masterpiece, and I’m sure it will be a joy to behold.
First Man, as good (even great) as it is, is not that masterpiece. But it is close. You might even say that it is only one small step away.