It’s obvious that Damien Chazelle is one of the most talented directors on Earth. Whiplash and LaLaLand proved that beyond any doubt. But the big lingering question was could he make a great movie that wasn’t a musical? Well the answer is pretty irrefutable: Yes. Yes he can.
First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong, is simply an extraordinary piece of cinema. It is complex. It is mysterious. It is overflowing with technical brilliance. It is sublimely beautiful to look at. In truth, there is very little one could fault about it.
Up and down the line, this movie made good decisions - starting with the script. The screenplay comes from Josh Singer, who also penned the superb Spotlight. As in that movie, Singer is incredibly adept at taking real-life events and letting them unfold on the screen in a way that is narratively satisfying and natural while still conveying the bigness of what is happening. He is a master of showing how enormously consequential historical events played out while avoiding clunky exposition traps or ginning the story up with manufactured drama and moments of fake emotional catharsis. This story is one for the ages, as it happened. It doesn’t need Hollywood flash-and-sizzle. It doesn’t need character arcs.
I loved the decision to tell the story of the Gemini and Apollo programs in a fairly unvarnished, straightforward manner. Indeed, it’s almost more like a documentary than a traditional biopic. This means it moves fast and covers a lot of ground. If you don’t have at least some rudimentary knowledge of NASA’s 1960s Space Program you probably won’t understand everything that is happening. This, along with the lengthy running time, no doubt helps explain why the movie has not been box office gold. But that’s OK. This film is art, not commerce, and art is not meant to sell.
Gosling was also a shrewd choice. As he proved in Drive, he has that James Dean quality whereby he can convey a quiet mournful intensity without much dialogue. And that is used to pretty great effect here, as he takes on the role of reluctant National Hero Neil Armstrong. Armstrong never yearned for the limelight. He was reserved and quiet, impossibly competent, and driven by a deep inner desire to explore and to conquer and to see what’s out there. Singer and Chazelle were so smart to never really pull back the curtain on his inner motivation and reveal what’s going on inside. He never looks into the camera and baldly states what his motivations are, as he would have done in a lesser movie from a Screenwriting 101 seminar. There is something unknowable about what drives him, and that is because there is something mysterious and unknowable about human nature and what compels us to do the things we do. Why are we driven to explore? And what are we willing to sacrifice to get there? Those are the questions the film pokes at, using Armstrong as a foil, but it doesn’t answer them.
Thematically, Chazelle has proven he is incapable of making any movie that does not focus on the immense, soul-shattering sacrifices that are necessary when we pursue great, monumental things. And that is fine, because that is an interesting theme with a lot of areas to explore. Had he just kept making movies about tortured musicians ruining their personal lives to make great songs it might have gotten old. But in this case he uses Armstrong as a new lens through which to filter that particular idea, and it works great. Armstrong did sacrifice a lot to become the first man to walk on the moon. His marriage was strained and he had a hard time relating to other people. Perhaps as a way of coping with tragedy but maybe for other reasons, he remained laser-focused on his mission. He was, ultimately, willing to die for it, to see the human race advance. And because of the great character work and the writing and the acting all of that heavy stuff is internalized. It shows up on screen, but nobody sits down and tells you: Hey, this is what is happening. That kind of restraint is such a great thing to see in a contemporary major motion picture like this.
Visually, this film is a masterwork. It is a deeply immersive sensory experience. You have to watch this film in a cinema. The scope and breadth and terror of what is going on will not translate even on your flat-screen at home. Part of that is because the sound design is hugely important to making you feel what the astronauts felt. Take the launch of the Gemini 8 mission. It was genius to shoot that entire sequence from inside the tiny space capsule, focused mostly on close-ups of Gosling inside a bulky helmet and flashes of Earth and space glimpsed through a tiny window. No majestic lift-off. No heroic music. You just mostly see what Armstrong saw from inside this claustrophobic little metal pod as he was hurled into space at extraordinary speeds, these terrible unnatural sounds that wash over you in the theater, punctuated at the end by the silent drift of space. It’s beautiful.
You could write a paragraph on the visual and auditory composition of just about every single sequence. The opening, when Armstrong has just broken through the atmosphere to glimpse the edge of the world, silent and floating with only the sound of his breathing. When the Gemini capsule starts tumbling wildly in orbit, and the horizon becomes a blurred and briefly glimpsed flash of blue and green rotating impossibly fast. The extended stroll on the lunar surface, quiet and triumphant and reflective, tinged with just the right amount of melancholy. This is a beautiful, extraordinary film to experience.
Ultimately I was struck by just how successful the movie is at conveying the magnitude of the challenge they were facing, how these men confronted the engineering and technical and existential obstacles, and then hurled themselves into space strapped to the largest rockets in history. How they simply accepted the fact that it was possible, even probable, that some of them wouldn’t make it. They truly didn’t know if they would die or not, but they did it anyway to push the bounds of human knowledge and experience and capabilities. And this is something we have lost a bit of in modern society, this willingness to sacrifice and to risk for the purposes of pushing forward. Then, as now, failures were used by vision-less people to try and halt the march of progress. The striking and tragic difference is that back then they pushed through the failures. Now it seems we are content to stop. The brilliance of a film like this is that everyone can mine it for different triumphs and tragedies, and for me that realization was the most tragic thing of all.