Venice 2018: Damien Chazelle's 'First Man' is Breathtaking & Beautiful
by Alex Billington
August 29, 2018
"We choose to go to the moon… We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…" We all know the story. But do we really know the story? What more is there to tell, to show us? First Man is the latest film made by Damien Chazelle, telling the story of astronaut / test pilot / engineer Neil Armstrong and his iconic mission in Apollo 11. After making three films previously, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, and La La Land, Chazelle continues to astound - he only gets better and better with every film he makes. First Man is an exceptionally beautiful, intimate look at how the determination and courage of men once took us farther than we have ever been before. In a word: breathtaking. A masterfully balanced mix of spectacle and quietness and perseverance.
Chazelle begins this story in 1961 when Neil Armstrong, as played by Ryan Gosling, is flying test flights in X-15 aircraft that just barely push through the atmosphere of Earth into space before returning. The film follows Armstrong over the next eight years, leading up to the incredible and unbelievable Moon landing in July of 1969. Armstrong was a notoriously quiet, reserved, humble man who never spent much time in the spotlight. Half of the film is a character study about Armstrong, focusing on these aspects of him, without explaining them but rather showing us how they define him. He was driven and precise, an excellent pilot and engineer who focused entirely on safety and success - as well as his family. The spectacle and historic grandeur of the missions weren't as much of a concern to him. The film is presented entirely from his point-of-view, intimately showing us his experience - not what it was like for the world to watch, but just for him.
I have said it before and I'll continue to say it - Damien Chazelle is such a talented, brilliant filmmaker. He knows exactly what to show us, giving us just the right amount of both spectacle and intimacy - we see the big scenes and the incredible moments for a few seconds, then but focus back on Armstrong's face and the claustrophobia of the spacecraft. The story itself features a number of exhilarating flying sequences, but it also balances this with an extensive amount of home life and dramatic scenes with the rest of the NASA technicians, executives, crew, and pilots. It's a universal story, one about how man (meaning any woman or man) can achieve anything - even seemingly impossible tasks - with the right amount of determination and focus and precision. NASA was basically sending these crews to their death, yet they courageously strapped in and shot for the Moon (literally) anyway because they wanted to prove, and knew, it would be a success.
This is the story Chazelle gives us. It's a bit of both, an intimate story of how much Armstrong went through, and what it all meant to him. And a look at the incredible journey NASA took to send these guys up there. And the flight sequences are breathtaking: I was literally holding my breath. The sound design and sound editing in this is remarkable, so perfectly created it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. And the score by Justin Hurwitz (who also worked on La La Land) is wonderful, unique and expressive in a way that magnifies our emotions just a bit more. All of this works together in perfect harmony, making this a film that is not an overstated Hollywood feature about how dazzling and extraordinary it was to travel to the Moon. Instead, it's about how these people worked audaciously & intensely to complete the mission.
There's one other side of this film that surprised me at first, but made me even more satisfied by the end - it's not a patriotic film. It's not just about America doing all of this, or how Americans are the greatest. It's a story about human beings doing the impossible. There are a few moments and lines about how we're battle the Russians, and Chazelle works in context with Americans even complaining about wasting all the money to do this. But he decided not to show Armstrong planting the flag, or include any conversations about how America is the best and/or the only place that could pull it off. The space race between America and Russia was mostly political - a way to rile up the general public and politicians in order to gain more support for America and NASA, and get the moeny they needed to do this. And of course, JFK's iconic speech sums it up perfectly: we did this because we took on the challenge, to overcome the odds and prove we can do anything.
Alex's Venice 2018 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing