Damien Chazelle loves conflict in the face of excellence. Individuals destined for greatness but saddled with mediocrity, of everyday life, of the drudgery of time, of the unpredictability of definite actions. In First Man, he grapples with the space oddities of landing on the moon. Much has been said, written, talked about the historical event that changed life and space exploration forever. I have seen so many space films that the joy of discovery has been diluted. Chazelle has only one way to go, behind the scenes, which he does. The journey to the event is stripped of all glamour, there is no goodbye profile walking long shots, there is no patriotic mood building, there is little dance of victory.
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What we get is Ryan Gosling, in his typical searing intensity. Chazelle loves framing him in soft light and struggling for emotions, on purpose. This combined with a mission that is as big a risk as any makes the premise potent for a great film. I loved the tension building, the play of silence, the intercuts of a family with everyday space training. There is no jokey-ness, the mood is pretty glum, even the kids look like they are being brought up on a healthy diet of Shyamalan and Nolan movies at home.
It would be interesting to revisit First Man and understand what the larger themes are, but I liked what I saw. The duration didn’t trouble me, and I could have easily taken more screen time. My favorite bits were when the film captures the claustrophobia, the maddening chaos of it all. The mood building is organic, you feel stressed and panic but not like Star Wars or Alien. The final landing scenes are indulgent but a feel earned and a joy to the senses. Justin Hurwitz and the score elevates the film several notches. Many times, I stopped and admired the wonderful use of music. Chazelle and Hurwitz are like kids playing with their instruments, sometimes roaring with joyous laughter, sometimes skipping pausing restarting a haunting space opera, and sometimes just letting a classic record play on, because why not.
Given that there is so much left to say in this genre, it is some kind of wonder that First Man finds its place at all. Some of the sequences will last over time for their individual beauty. I liked that there is no fiddling around with the narrative here. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it is typical of young prodigies like Chazelle who storm onto the scene with something radical, then slowly settle down with some mature works. First Man is that mature work for him. It plays to the classical notes, yet doesn’t lose the sense of wonder. Armstrong’s journey of the mission is a nice parallel to the director’s own filmmaking curve. They never know what’s coming, but confidently march on.
First Man is akin to a visit to the science museum. You look at the exhibits everyone tells you about, touch them, feel them, marvel at them, thinking about what stories you will tell your friends when they ask about your visit. And then there are those who look boring, nothing special about them, like a relic, a piece of artillery from a fighter plane, a broken masthead, some objects left from a deadly invasion. They intrigue you, you stop and look at them. What could they have meant back in time. And then you move on to the more exciting parts of the museum. First Man is the boring parts, and you will not forget them easily.