REVIEW – Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” A Deservedly Stratospheric Effort

By Joe Hammerschmidt

The first thing one may notice in all of Damian Chazelle’s films is the penchant for opening with a pure sonic explosion. One that not just introduces the landscape, builds the merit of our lead character(s), and provides a valuable first taste of Justin Hurwitz’s convulsion-riddled musical contributions. Each of his features always showed a fairly unique trait in that auditory buildup, yet they equally placed you in the shoes belonging to the assumed leading figure, and what they believe in. Heed this important warning, for the uninitiated: it’s never done delicately. For his fourth feature, First Man, viewers are propelled into the front row POV of one Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), the decorated Navy pilot turned astronaut, fighting against the naysayers, and that turbulent 60s culture clash to pave the way for so many to accept uncertainty, and invite the unknown. From the very first scene, in the earliest stages of his testing and rehearsal, right to that eclectic moment of glory where space shoes land into the moon’s powdery surface, it’s an undisputed, edge-of-seat-gripping thrill ride. An experience that’s as visual as it is auditory, the two playing back in forth in an unexpected, fulfilling, synchronous flow. To not be gripped in all the way through, would be to lack a smidgeon of empathy.

Gosling is front and center as the brave Armstrong, once a test pilot, with strong military ties. Sufficient credentials for NASA to pick him up for their second wave of recruits, opposite the folksy Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), the determinate Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber), and their den father, overeager Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). Between 1961-69, this passionate trio, and those sacrificed along the way, particularly brave Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and the cocky Ed White (Jason Clarke) go above and beyond, then in reverse whenever a setback strikes them detrimentally. The glamour of actually being an understated space hero is thankfully downplayed, to stay onto the real world actions/consequences. The physical, mental, emotional ordeals; they’re just as much part of the shared cultural history.

Chazelle, the truest soul in a sea of up-and-coming directors has firmly solidified his place in the Hollywood pantheon with this true-life biopic, one that could likely set the tone for the next decade’s genre-heavy dramas, and the type of audience that may receive them. Though I can’t quite shake the feeling that had it come out a little closer to the blossoming blockbuster time of Apollo 13, maybe it would’ve fared better. Given the distance between the two, it deserves to be a little better than all its parts combined. It lacks the electricity between characters that La La Land possessed, but maintains the intense life-or-death ideal Ron Howard had firmly emphasized so many years ago. Once more, these are all just tiny quirks that need not break away from an intense attraction.

On the subject of character development, Josh Singer’s (Spotlight) script struggles slightly with that simple requirement. Building connections between coworkers, and even family members, it just took a little time. Neil and his wife Janet Shearon (Claire Foy), they rarely see eye to eye, their relationship isn’t necessarily on the best terms while he ventures off into space. Kudos to him for not letting anything else be as important when work calls. Foy, TV’s esteemed royal monarch, is nonetheless a treasure throughout the picture; if it’s not to coy to add, perhaps an Oscar season Best Actress contender, all due to her blindsided fury. She’s literally the only person to speak reason into her husband’s mind, and when she explodes, best look out. The pair’s chemistry on screen couldn’t be more unique, if not a little strained at the start.

The remaining cast members are nothing short, or less, or more, than a confident, ensemble backbone. All of them keep their performances especially cozy, established character actors who may not be known best for their specific NASA parts, except for maybe Stoll and Chandler, and even only to their largest fans. A little more of Jason Clarke’s overly confident sky vet character could’ve gone a long way. Considering Singer had to stay very close to the events described in James R. Hanson’s written bio-novel of Armstrong’s life story, that sort of quibble must be forgiven fast, to shift the focus back on to the man of the hour. The way we tend to shift between Neil the man, Neil the husband, Neil the loyal worker, and Neil the dad, these four quadrants are toggled a bit roughly, lacking a certain degree of balance in transitioning from one side of the hero to the next. There’s just a symbiotic harmony that’s rather stretched too thin, but it might not be enough of an issue that it spoils the rest of the film, it just aids in putting the astronaut in his most honest light. So it might be for the best, or for the worst; however the viewer would see it.

Proving Chazelle believes firmly in the power of collaboration, he’s reuniting many of the same talented technical individuals who helped in expressing the artistry of La La Land. Aside from Oscar-winning composer Hurwitz, cinematographer Linus Sandgren returns to effortlessly merge outside visuals with the cold, nearly cynical NASA workplace visuals of the 60s, as well as that all too brief glimpse into the political backlash that almost rears a weird head in terms of its placement (look for Leon Bridges caricaturing jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron, almost too effectively). Editor Tom Cross may secure plenty of award attention through his razor-sharp cutting in those moments of undeniable dread and anguish, perhaps simulating the sheer momentary brazenness, as could production designer Nathan Crowley, who despite having been tapped to assume the shoes left behind by David Wasco, uses his experience with tension-building dramas (Interstellar, Dunkirk) to his starkest advantage. And of course, do keep the ears open as much as possible for what Ai-Ling Lee has managed to achieve, seamlessly bobbing and weaving between quiet and loud, that they’re both the same definitive action word.

Even when Singer’s novel adaptation falters when it really needs to hold together, Chazelle, Gosling, and the rest of his sturdy, talented actors push on forward, creating a vivid, bombastic reason why movies matter. Just as he did for the old-school musical two years prior, First Man is easily a cinephile’s film. Much to take awe at, plenty to break down and analyze, and riddled with a few imperfections that add to the subject’s mystique, all while celebrating a shared dream, a common brotherhood that accomplished said dream, and the transparent roadblocks that could get in the way at any time. I can’t honestly say it’s a total five-star masterpiece, but there’s much evidence as to why it could remain one of my overall favorite films in 2018. It’s passionate, deliberate, energetic, solemn, excitable, and painfully emotional, firing on all cylinders to try for the best way home, after one amazingly crafted journey. In an age when we haven’t had many legitimate space movies not to be tied to an existing franchise, Mr. Chazelle revives the lost hope in that art, while likely challenging just where this little subgenre could be going in the future. And for once, the sky needn’t be the limit. (A-)

First Man opens in most area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language; 141 minutes.