After Whiplash and La La Land, it’s pretty safe to say that Damien Chazelle is one of the most prolific directors working these days. Those films are two of my favourites of all time, and while I haven’t been able to watch his previous work due to limited availability, I was eager to watch his latest picture as soon as it was announced. Teaming up with the one and only Ryan Gosling once again, this was a big departure from his previous work, both thematically and in terms of genre. Is his craftsmanship as excellent as always despite these changes? Let’s find out!
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to ever step on the moon, as he prepares for a small step for the man. I’m not quite familiar with the events depicted on the film, so I can’t really tell how faithfully they are portrayed, but from what I’ve researched, the story has been adapted quite accurately, which is always nice.
Let’s get the biggest question out of the way: yes, this is yet another prove of how bloody amazing Chazelle is as a director. He knows how to make the most of every moment, providing great shot compositions, cleverly planned scenes and taking the actors and actresses he works with to their very best. Not only does he make epic moments feel huge, but small moments emotionally powerful too. In fact, the way First Man balances both aspects of Armstrong’s life is probably the best part, since training and missions are juxtaposed with family drama, and the film never misses a bit. Of course, the space race against Russia also plays a big part, that was nicely handled too. It’s constantly gripping and emotional.
Nowadays, a movie with a space mission as its central story arc, would be shot with grandiose special effects and visually stunning imagery. However, Chazelle takes another route, making sound the main element of filmmaking. Throughout most of the picture, even the most stunning moments are shot very subjectively, providing the astronaut’s point of view, showing the interior of the vehicle as he ascends. This means the visuals are more basic (not poor at all, though, as every shot is crafted carefully), but the director makes the most of sounds to transport the audience to the spaceship. Everything makes noises in these scenes. Chiming, rattling, clicking sounds can be heard constantly. That is, of course, until outer space is reached, as silence takes the leading role of the film. This is a method that most movies that portray the space feature, but it feels like a whole new thing in First Man, creating an audible chiaroscuro that’s incredibly evoking.
It almost works the same way with the visuals. As we’ve just mentioned, they’re quite simple during most of the runtime, but as the big finale arrives, Chazelle doesn’t hold his punches, and makes the most of special effects and CGI. The contrast with the rest of the scenes works very well, making those final shots grandiose and spectacular, without having to make them too complex or overproduced. This man is brilliant.
The director joins once again with Justin Hurwitz for the score, who also wrote the soundtrack for La La Land. I really liked the music in the film, but I must say that at times it was, simply put, absent from the scenes. More compelling tunes could’ve been made and a more important role given to them, as most of the time it’s just the “gets the job done” kind of score, which is a quite shame taking into account previous work he’s done.
I’ve always enjoyed Gosling’s work as an actor, especially when he joins Nicolas Winding Refn, but he’s been criticised for not being very expressive in many of his films. This time around, he delivers the best performance he’s ever given, the one with most emotion and passion. He is joined by Claire Foy, who also does a fantastic job. Both of them work really well together too, with lots of chemistry on-screen, creating a believable couple.
Another aspect that I particularly enjoyed was production design, as it took advantage of the time-period the story happens in. The 60s are nicely created in every scene, with lots of tiny details thrown in to guarantee immersion. It may be a small touch, but as an example, there’s a scene in which two characters drink a beer. It was nice to see how they were careful enough to have cans that made sense in the period, cans that still didn’t have the modern opening system and needed a specific can-opener. Lots of nuances make the whole picture definitely richer.
All in all, I really enjoyed First Man, which I believe works wonderfully at telling a story we all (more or less) know. It delivers an amazing experience, with the subtleties and shades of gray Chazelle always manages to create, with few things being good or bad, and sacrifices having to be made for a giant leap for humanity. 9/10