Director Damien Chazelle’s little known first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was about the love life of a jazz trumpeter. Then came Whiplash about a jazz drummer and his bullying teacher before the delightful La La Land about an aspiring young female actor and a passionate jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own jazz club. With First Man Chazelle has retained the lead actor from his last movie but in every other respect he is moving away from his usual familiar territory. He has gone from Louis Armstrong to Neil Armstrong, from the pentatonic to the astronomic, from La La Land to Moo Moon Landings. No one is tapping their toes in this one, there is no soft shoe shuffling; instead Chazelle and Ryan Gosling are taking smaller steps and larger leaps.
There is no question that with this movie Chazelle is showing greater diversity and wider skills as a film maker. Whether or not you think the change has been successful will depend a lot on what you want and what you are expecting from First Man. As the title suggests this is about the man, not the mission and as Armstrong is presented as a muted and slightly dour guy so too is this a muted and slightly dour film. The movie this most obviously compares to is Apollo 13 but this doesn’t actually compare to Apollo 13 at all; it has a very different tone and is far less gripping. Frankly, the maths in Hidden Figures was presented in a more exciting way than the race to put a man on the moon is presented here.
Seen as character piece though First Man is highly compelling. The film does draw you to Armstrong and it is moving to see his story, that few know, played out alongside the history that everyone knows. The director’s previous films have depicted passion and obsession and while this one drops the former, the latter remains very much in evidence coupled here with stifling repression. Gosling and Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong is a man untroubled by legacy and reputation but deeply troubled by what he perceives to be his failures as a father and this both holds him back and drives him to achieve. He is not doing what he is doing for mankind, he is doing it for one little girl. In this context you care less about hearing his famous words spoken to the world from the lunar surface but you are holding your breath to hear what he says to his wife on his return home.
In many respects Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong is the real hero here. It isn’t always easy to like any of the NASA crew, so focused and jobsworth are they about their jobs. (Corey Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is the only one with any real personality and putting him next to the seriousness of everyone else he comes across as a bit of an arse.) Janet is definitely the audience’s way in to the story and as written she is so much more than the archetypal woman left at home. We get more of an idea of the difficulty of living with the constant threat of losing your partner and the cost of this than we do with the mortal threat of actually being an astronaut. Credit should go to Chazelle for highlighting the importance of the woman in this man’s narrative.
I was expecting First Man to be in my top ten films of the year having been raised by my father and George Lucas to love all things outer spacey. As it is though this barely makes the top twenty. The last hour came closest to taking me on the journey I’d hoped to take but for me the movie looks too closely at its protagonist (literally in many cases, I was longing for the camera to occasionally pull back). I wasn’t disappointed by First Man because it has not failed in any way but it isn’t quite what I wanted it to be.
I liked it a lot but by concentrating heavily on its excellent central performance from Ryan Gosling it too often gave me a star when I wanted the moon.