Review: Director Damien Chazelle shines again with ‘First Man’

by Willem Gerrish | 10/30/18 2:12am

Director Damien Chazelle is quickly making a name for himself as the rightful heir to the throne of dramatic cinema. After his mesmerizing 2014 film “Whiplash” set the cinema world abuzz and his 2016 homage to Hollywood artistry and romance “La La Land” made him the youngest-ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Director, Chazelle has catapulted to the forefront of directorial talent. His next test resides in “First Man,” an intense and engrossing film about astronaut Neil Armstrong and his accomplishment as the first human to walk on the moon. With “First Man,” Chazelle has made another triumphant film that evidences both his innate talent behind the camera as well as his uncanny ability to bring the best out of his on-screen actors.

“First Man” begins in tumult. The audience is thrust into discordant fervor as Chazelle plunges right into the action, depicting Armstrong, played by a calculating and restrained Ryan Gosling, as he fights his way through a test flight gone awry. We’re treated to an atmospheric feast full of some remarkable photographic stunts, including one of my favorite directorial methods for capturing any high velocity action sequence: affixing the camera to the outside of a vehicle so that, in a twist on reality, the rocketing hunk of metal remains stationary while the world beyond rushes by. It’s a tactic used magnificently by Christopher Nolan in 2014’s “Interstellar,” and whether or not Chazelle took direct inspiration from Nolan, his camera work echoes that same astral intensity. In fact, for the first five minutes of the film, the aural and visual treats do almost all of the talking. The camera cuts from shaky interior shots of Gosling’s grimacing face to brilliant vistas of the boundary between earth and space and then back again, using subtle but effective sound editing — the blast of rocket propulsion or the terrifyingly rapid ticking of the altimeter as Armstrong’s plane bounces off the atmosphere — to stir the audience. Chazelle also slips into the first-person perspective, giving us images of what Armstrong is encountering with his own eyes. All of these tricks work brilliantly, and this opening scene serves as an enthralling introduction to the high-risk world of flight.

But the real focus of this movie is the man beneath the helmet and goggles, and a quick shift reveals one of the major points in Armstrong’s personal life: the death of his infant daughter Karen following a battle with cancer. Chazelle uses this as a starting point for his investigation into the famously reserved and humble Armstrong, and he tackles the job well by keeping much of the man a mystery. He presents Armstrong as someone who believes he can handle anything and everything thrown his way, and though it keeps him stolid and grounded, it breeds demons too. This is what makes Gosling’s performance so phenomenal: though it seems a bit lackluster at first, he’s actually playing his part perfectly, letting his quiet words and demeanor feign control while his eyes hint at the tremors beneath.

Armstrong tackles many of the momentous occasions in his life with this almost unbelievable serenity and blandness. In a press conference before his flight to the moon, reporters ask him what sort of mementos he’ll be bringing with him, to which Armstrong replies “If I had a choice, I’d take more fuel.” This sort of interaction is indicative of Armstrong’s granite exterior, and throughout the film it plays an integral role in both his professional and family life.

Claire Foy is impeccable as Armstrong’s wife, Janet, a woman forced to bear the entire emotional burden of her husband’s remarkable but risky career. As a mother to two living children with Armstrong as well as the departed Karen, Janet serves as both the familial caretaker and honorary worrier for both herself and her husband. There’s a sense of mounting tension as the dangers of Armstrong’s job become more and more evident through dying colleagues and razor-thin survivals of crash landings, and Neil tries to brush these horrors off while Janet reluctantly absorbs them.

Eventually, both Armstrong and his wife begin to break down. Neil finds himself incapable of facing the terrifying possibility of his own death, a notion remarkably evident when he won’t even sit down with his kids to say goodbye before his risky flight to the moon. It’s here that Janet reaches her tipping point, and in a dramatic scene played masterfully by both Gosling and Foy, Janet confronts Neil and forces him to take some emotional initiative, proclaiming “Not me. I’m done.” And yet, even as Neil acquiesces and sits at the kitchen table with his young children, the conversation is more akin to a press conference than a familial gathering. He’s simply a man unequipped to face the harsh realities of loss and emotion.

One of the great feats that Chazelle achieves in “First Man” is a balancing act between Armstrong’s strained personal life and his remarkable endeavors at NASA. Each has its own drama and excitement, and in the end it’s hard to say which is more affecting. On the one hand, instances like the aforementioned climax between Janet and Neil pull at the heart, yet the remarkable vehicular set pieces wrench at the gut. Combined, they make for a film that is relentless; Chazelle hardly lets his foot off the gas as he leaps between the worlds of familial strife and physical struggle.

Perhaps the best moment of the film is when it blends these two microcosms in the movie’s epic conclusion. After a tumultuous flight and a hair-raising landing, Armstrong finally steps out onto the surface of the moon in a monumental moment for world history. Chazelle’s camera lingers on Armstrong’s face, but it’s obscured by the mirrored surface of his visor. As I watched on, I was begging to see the look on Armstrong’s face, and just as I was about to give up, Chazelle gave me exactly what I was hoping for: Armstrong raises his visor, revealing a face tight with restraint but clearly overcome with emotion. He holds in his hand what he really brought with him to the moon — not more fuel, but Karen’s childhood bracelet. Dropping the bracelet into a crater, a tear falls from his eye, and Armstrong closes his visor. It’s a perfect culmination of the movie’s internal battle between family and frontier, proving that not even a man as controlled as Neil Armstrong can keep the events of his life from seeping into his greatest achievements.

Damien Chazelle can add another resounding success to his résumé with “First Man.” He takes his viewers on a tremendous emotional and physical ride through the life and work of Neil Armstrong, and in the process, he provides a fresh and invigorating perspective on both the man and his enduring feats. From a dramatic perspective, Chazelle serves up all the splendor one could hope for, and with the conclusion of the film, he completes a masterful progression from external stress to inner turmoil. In the final shot, Neil and Janet wear pained expressions as they touch fingers across the glass of a quarantine booth, and then the camera cuts to black: what began in raucous fervor ends in stunned silence.

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