Damien Chazelle is a filmmaker who, in the span of two films, caught the eye of both critics and audiences in a way that few achieve. With the ferocity of “Whiplash” and the lyrical scope of “La La Land,” Chazelle has become one of the more notable names in that of the next generation of directors/writers. He’s altered his tune from song to that of pure-drama, in this case, a space-drama. It’s an intense, arm-gripping, palm sweating thrill-ride that encapsulates the most dangerous mission in human history.
It’s a first-person assault on our senses; more so than previous entries that romanticize the Apollo 11 mission. Capturing the magnitude and severity of such a mission, the experience is one of wildness and tension. The grandness of space is rarely the focal point as the film grounds itself around that of forthcoming first man on the moon Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his fellow Apollo Program comrades. Zipping themselves into insulated suits packed with that of body waste catching bags, as they strap themselves into a skyscraper-tall rocket and for that final countdown for lift off and ignition. The frenzy and the roaring speed rattle their bones and shatter their eardrums as they are forcefully heaved into the atmosphere and into the vast vacuum of space. Few of their fleeting moments are spent gazing upon the silent beauty and calmness of the blackness of space as they stare out at the shrinking blue earth, little of their time is devoted to such aesthetic bliss. Perhaps they couldn’t grasp such natural artistry amongst the mayhem of expending their mental energy in keeping the ship afloat.
Stemming from the minds of director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer ("Spotlight," "The Post"), the film opens with him testing the atmospheric pressure of an aircraft; we watch as the camera vibrates and jitters with unrelenting energy. The audio drowned out by the sounds of chaos and mayday mayhem; it's loud and ravenous. Neil eventually gains control of his craft and returns safely to the ground as we now get to learn more about the man on the ground than the one in the sky.
Neil, a dapper and soft-spoken pilot, is a family man. When we first see him carrying out that of normality in his life, he’s at a hospital watching through a glass window as his young daughter receives radiation for what is presumed to be cancer. Though it's never made clear by Chazelle, the treatment is tragically unsuccessful as we soon take part in viewing Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), stand side-by-side as their daughter is buried. Later on, we watch Neil saunters into his office as he clears it from the research he was applying towards that of saving his late-daughter, he then gently sits down, and the camera closes the distance as Neil begins to let his emotions flow. It’s a powerfully poignant scene in which Chazelle construes Neil’s confinement of his feelings, a recurring trait throughout the film that implies or suggests that Neil was battling depression in the midst of flying to the moon.
Though that suspicion is never made apparent, it becomes evident that Neil chose to enroll in the Apollo program in part because he wants to be distracted from the grief of losing his two-year-old daughter. His wife Janet is grieving too, but she’s chained to the home, solely being responsible for the children. On one occasion, she storms the building of NASA, demanding answers as to the inquiry of her husband’s safety during one of the many deadly missions he embarks on. It’s quite possibly her only standout scene, next to another that occurs moments before the Apollo 11 mission. Chazelle doesn’t neglect her, but the attention that could be given to a mother, a wife, watching her husband risk his life from the sidelines, constrained by societal constructions to be nothing more than a mother, is somewhat of an uncompensated and dimly lit subject begging for more attention.
Now and then, the movie reminds you of the complexity that the American public generated towards such a mission. How could the government fund what amounted to be a rocket-measuring contest between two overly-macho countries, instead of supporting regulation for racial, gender, and economic equality? At one point, the film cuts to a protest occurring off the shores of the Apollo test sights in Cape Canaveral in which a protestor pleads the inherent hypocrisy in neglecting the needs of those subjugated to racial-driven scrutiny while that of a group of white boys fly to the moon. While films like “Hidden Figures” showcased the integral role that a group of African-Americans, African-American women, played in that of the success of the Apollo, “First Man” strays away from the politics and environmental turmoil of the time in exchange for the vigor of the mission.
It plays into a more significant flaw that stifles Chazelle and Singer in their efforts to craft such a roller-coaster ride, disregarding the humanity encompassing both the mission and the men commenced to see it through. While we gain knowledge of Neil’s struggles and a surface level understanding of his grief and his emotional turbulence, “First Man” most significant stigma occurs on that of a human level. The film fails to capture the outrage or the controversy of such an event happening in the political firestorm that was the 1960s. Glimpsing and merely poking at the surrounding circumstances that frame our narrative, Singer and Chazelle graze the imprint of such an event. In the same way, the pair decline to apply pressure to that of the characters we meet. Neil’s anxiety and his meandering stir that mutates over the film becomes like that of the foreground, never does Chazelle or Singer begin to zero in on the man behind the mission more than the mission behind the man.
Chazelle and his regular cinematographer Linus Sandgren maintain an embedded relationship between Neal and the camera though, whether he’s absorbing information at a NASA mission briefing, reading to his son at bedtime, arguing with his wife, or walking away from a burning wreck; the camera fixates upon him and him alone. Even in the case of the Apollo 1 capsule fire, Chazelle and Sandgren don’t treat the accident as one of individualistic tragedy, but rather their painful impact on that of Neil and the conveying of a potential threat to his safety. The film seems to be focused on that of his journey, and his trip alone, and the intensity of such an adventure. In that frame of mind, judging the film solely as an exhibition in visual dynamism, “First Man” has to be considered a success. Imparting astonishing clarity to a sequence of images we’ve seen before, but ones that never honestly felt as vehemently as Chazelle makes it.
If he only he explored further with that of Neil himself, as Chazelle and Singer, like others before them, insinuates the emotional calamity of American machismo but never explore any farther. While they are crafting a vehicular visual ride about our responsibility to examine and reach further and higher than those before us, they almost entirely omit the investing tour of the socially conditioned and tangibly grieving man standing before them. His stoic and unarticulated suppressed grief is never attacked by the two, and its one feels like that of a handicap on Gosling's performance. Though he is capturing that buried and choked down sorrow, the moment where he would eventually let it go and begin to release, as indicated at the beginning of the film, is never brought to fruition. Gosling is the only one with moments worth mentioning though, the talented actor carries the film alone like that of a one-person show, as Foy and Corey Stoll (who depicts Buzz Aldrin) compete for a distant second place finish.
While the winner of that contest remains unclear to me as of yet, what does become explicitly evident is Chazelle’s viscerality as a director. Like that of the gritty ‘70s filmmaker that he cites as heroes during interviews, Chazelle adapts that mold with that of a technically adept big-screen showman. His musical fervor in that of “Whiplash” was riddling and tightly-gripping to watch, forcing us to react to music in a way we’ve never have before. His scope and grandeur in “La La Land” was a reminder that he, like us, grew up admiring filmmakers of the past, as he tailored the musical majesty of yesteryear while placing a unique fingerprint on the work. Those films were standout projects, and “First Man,” in comparison, is a misfire.
It’s not a bad film or a failure in any sense of the meaning, but “First Man” is a rattling and compelling experience without heart and without a crux of poignancy. It’s a film that with a bit more trajectory and correction in the flight pattern could have soared higher and farther than any realistic-space drama before it. Not to be too on the nose, but it's one small step backward for Chazelle, but hopefully one giant leap for his future as a filmmaker. Because, while he and Singer struggle to grasp empathy, they revitalize the hellish thrill ride that cinema can become. The large-scale action scenes are frightening and exhilarating; in fact, it’s hard to imagine someone pressing the eject button in the midst of experiencing this chaotically, breathtaking cinematic depiction of exploration.