Imagine trying to rewrite a language. Imagine sitting down, and seeing the immense history of English and thinking, I’m going to reinvent this language and make it new again. It’s an insurmountable task. It’s impossible. But, to paraphrase a great man, reinventing something old is done not because it’s easy, but because it is hard.
First Man is a film that demands prior knowledge of the history of NASA and the space race in the sixties. It doesn’t care to hold your hand and explain who is who or what is what, it simply wants to show the internal struggles of one man – the one man whom fate has deigned to be the first human being to place a foot on the moon. That man, of course, is Neil Armstrong, portrayed by Ryan Gosling.
Damien Chazelle approaches the story of Neil Armstrong and his role in the space race like there has never been a movie about space exploration made before. He takes the texts of Stanley Kubrick, Ron Howard, Christopher Nolan, Philip Kaufman, and Andrei Tarkovsky, and rejects them completely, discarding decades of space focused texts under the notion that he can rewrite them and make them new. Chazelle’s ego permeates through every frame as he attempts to show the life of the first man on the moon through the prism of cinema vérité style film making, taking every page from the handbook of Paul Greengrass and applying it to the grandeur of space exploration.
Yet, Damien Chazelle is no Kubrick, Kaufman or Howard. He may have an Oscar, but he lacks the necessary skills to straddle the line between the intended internal monologue that drives Armstrong and the grandeur of space. Chazelle, alongside writer Josh Singer (working off James R. Hansen’s book of the same name), intend this to be a character study – an exploration of what goes into the mind of Neil Armstrong as he struggles with family life and work life, with every day on the job bringing the threat of death. That in itself is an interesting concept, but Singer never gives Gosling the material to craft a compelling, engaging version of Neil Armstrong.
Ryan Gosling has perpetually been an actor that works in the wheelhouse of subtlety, crafting characters that appear to have a world of emotions raging under the surface. The directors he’s worked with have managed to coax these emotions out with varying quality. Derek Cianfrance eked a heartbreaking husband figure out of Gosling in Blue Valentine, while Nicolas Winding Refn helped Gosling craft two of the most impressive explorations of masculinity in modern cinema with the one two punch of Drive and Only God Forgives. These are directors who understand how to work with Gosling, and how to give him the space to craft fascinating characters.
Yet, every decision Chazelle makes works against his leading man.
First of all, the mad, crazy, handheld cinematography from Linus Sandgren (he who crafted a beautiful dream like aesthetic with La La Land) works against the film in every frame. The old rule of show don’t tell is broken in every way, with the frenetic, shaky cam being employed to evoke the underlying anxiety and stress that thrives in Armstrong. He may not show his stress, opting to internalise the pain he lives with after the early loss of a daughter rather than talk about it, but Chazelle never allows us to see Gosling explore these emotions. It’s obnoxious to the point of frustration.
And what a frustrating missed opportunity to explore masculinity in the sixties. An era where men were redefining themselves in between wars, and a country was standing up and announcing themselves as a world power, is ripe for deep exploration of what it meant to be a man growing up then. Outside of a brief moment where Jason Clarke’s underutilised Edward Higgins White asks Armstrong out for a beer, there’s little ground covered with what it means to be an astronaut, or someone changing history.
Back to Armstrong’s daughter for a moment – her presence is such a haphazard, disrespectful one. Chazelle presents her as a spiritless character who passes away within the first act of the film, reducing what should be an emotional element into something that is disrespectful and tacky. This is merely a cheap way of getting the audience to emotionally engage with an emotionally distant Armstrong, forgoing any of the necessary work to make the connection feel organic and natural.
On top of Sandgren’s shocking cinematography is the use of Justin Hurwitz’s tepid score. At one point, a short motif from La La Land rears its head in part of the score, and I was convinced that this laziness was merely there so Chazelle could slip in City of Stars once again. You can almost hear him arguing with the producers off screen, ‘get it? See, Neil Armstrong is going to the moon which is like a city, and the moon is surrounded by stars. It’s a City. Of. Stars.’ It’s enough to make you sigh in frustration.
As is the case with these ‘men exploring the skies’ films, the wife is kept diligently suffering at home as she has to wrangle bored kids in a manufactured suburb where wives wait for their husbands to return home. Claire Foy gets the honour this time round, playing the wide eyed Janet Armstrong who gradually becomes more frizzled as the NASA space program claims life after life in the pursuit of science. Foy does her best, but is again hampered by Sandgren’s cinematography that works primarily in close ups, aiming to squeeze every single last element of emotion of out the frame.
Characters flit in and out of the story without explanation of who they are or what their role is in the realm of Armstrong’s life story. Equally so, the world of America surrounding the space program is given a short shrift, with mere cursory glances to the public’s reaction to millions being spent on such a program. Chazelle steps into problematic territory when placing the only black ‘character’ in a protest scene, with him singing a soulful protest song that merely exists to evoke some kind of emotion. It’s cheap and patronising.
First Man was a film that Chazelle had been working on for years, having made La La Land as a way of helping secure the clout and financing for this story to be told. Yet, like with many passion projects – especially one that comes after a Best Director win (a bit like Peter Jackson and King Kong really) – the director is too heavily invested in telling a story they have fallen in love with, and have fallen so deep in love that they lack any distance from the narrative. Chazelle comes across as a director who is giddy with the possibilities he’s presented with. So eager to make his mark on this sub-genre of cinema that he neglects to see whether the decisions he makes are the right ones for the story he’s telling.
In the end, First Man comes across as being a purely amatuerish affair. It’s a film that’s devoid of necessity, what with films like The Right Stuff and shows like From the Earth to the Moon existing. No new ground is forged, and the language that Chazelle thinks he’s writing in is illegible and muddled. The closing shot of Neil and Janet reuniting, separated by a quarantine window, works as the films sole pure moment of emotion, leaving me wishing that the rest of the film had had the same heft as those few seconds do.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll
Writer: Josh Singer, (based on the book by James R. Hansen)