starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott
screenplay by Josh Singer
directed by Damien Chazelle
by Walter Chaw Damien Chazelle's First Man is the Super 8 shrine for Terrence Malick that Oscar voters never knew they needed. It's a mutant clumping-together of The Tree of Life (all the sad Texas scenes) and Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff (all the astronaut stuff), mixed in with a few scenes that are gritty and true (most of them involving a frankly extraordinary Claire Foy), even if Chazelle remains overly fond of snap zooms and the handheld aesthetic in long shots. It's best, even exceptional, when it's not hagiography and passing fine when it's doing what it "ought" to be doing. Like playing a classical music waltz when stoic-to-the-point-of-deranged astronaut/engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) initiates the first-ever orbital docking manoeuvre, because 2001: A Space Odyssey; or doing a little riff on Bill Conti's amazing score for The Right Stuff right before the first closed-cabin testing. Could be homage. Could be the movie just doing what seems right as a shorthand for emotional engagement. If that's the case, more's the pity, as Chazelle proves in the first thirty minutes or so of his film--which revolve around an orbital "bounce" for a test plane and the death of Armstrong's toddler daughter to cancer--that he's capable of evoking real emotion, and employing smart contrasts in style and action, if he would only let go of the desire to impress.
So many good choices in First Man--and so many that are either obvious or unfortunate. Most of the flight sequences are shot from the point-of-view of the pilots or in such tight closeup that it's impossible to know what's happening spatially. The near-fatal orbital docking manoeuvre ends with the capsule holding Armstrong and Dave Scott (Christopher Abbott) spinning around at revolutions a second and is resolved basically with Armstrong grimacing and flipping switches on and off for a period long past useful or, crucially, interesting. Better is earlier in that sequence when Armstrong refuses to answer Ground Control because he's busy doing math longhand. It's character-developing and establishes some parameters. Then the picture immediately goes into noises and shaking. I understand that this is a choice, putting the viewers in the same situation as the astronauts who were blind but for their tiny portals, sort of searching out the universe from inside a steel can. But all these (many) scenes really do is make one nauseated. Still, it can be forgiven as a stylistic decision because at least the style is Chazelle's. Less easy to overlook is the open cribbing of Malick's nostalgic elegies; ditto Kaufman's iconic depiction of the sometimes-perverse rigours of astronaut training.
First Man is the first Damien Chazelle movie I've liked and there are times I liked it quite a lot. Gosling essentially plays his wounded masculinity thing from Drive, with the saving grace being that he's really good at silent and taciturn. And of course there's Foy, who will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar next year and deserve it. At the movie's core is a conversation about depression--the moon, everything else is a MacGuffin I wish First Man hadn't spent quite as much time on. Chazelle and Gosling's Armstrong is going through something terrible and personal--hollowing out from the inside, he distracts himself with aspiration. He looks for solace, and the film implies that what he finds instead is another kind of eternal blackness, standing against the universe at the edge of a crater he can't see the bottom of. He lets something drop there. I don't know if he did in real life, but it works superbly in the film. Foy plays Janet as frustrated. She walks around Neil on eggshells until she doesn't; she knows not to ask until she does. I love how a wake ends when Neil can't deal with being around people anymore and so leaves Janet at the party without telling her, forcing her to later suffer the humiliation of friends driving her home. The way she holds onto her dignity in the backseat, the way she tries to defend his, it's spectacular. She sees him standing in the backyard looking into the sky, and instead of romanticizing the mariner gazing at the gulf, First Man has her turning out the light to leave him to his dark. The last shot of the picture suggests both that maybe he's going to break through his glassed-in despair and that maybe he never will. But First Man's best moment is its quietest: Neil and Janet are talking about a pleasant nothing, there's a pause, and then they laugh together. In a flash, you understand what's really at stake here. It's everything, and it's lovely.