Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciaran Hinds, Christopher Abbott
Run Time: 141 mins
First Man is the latest by Damien Chazelle, who made Whiplash, which was my favourite film of 2015. Chazelle also wrote the excellent 10 Cloverfield Lane and then experienced further success from La La Land, winning him the Best Director Oscar. However, I kind Chazelle crashed and burned with La La Land and I couldn’t understand the praise it recieved. Chazelle’s latest is a biopic based on Neil Armstrong and him being the first man on the moon. Chazelle reunites with La La Land lead Ryan Gosling, who portrays Armstrong and has assembled a high pedigree cast consisting of Claire Foy who plays Armstrong’s wife and talented actors such as Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler and Ciaran Hinds as his colleagues.
First Man is an interesting film and certainly represents a step-up from La La Land but Chazelle unfortunately again isn’t on top form here. Chazelle has made what is a rather empty, downbeat film that explores Gosling’s stoic and enigmatic Neil Armstrong’s loneliness and detachment after the death of his daughter, more so than the actual mission. This personal approach is innovative for a biopic and the film succeeds in sustaining a chilly atmosphere. That said, we don’t learn all that much about Armstrong and the whole depiction of the Space Race is poor as it references the Russian attempt in the first act but then bizarrely throws it out the window.
The performances are good but unremarkable – Gosling essentially plays himself and the rest of the cast aren’t really given all that much to do. The other problem with the film is surprisingly the script. Chazelle didn’t write the script for this film and it is instead written by Josh Singer, who did a great job with Spotlight but a poor job on The Post. Like the latter, Singer’s script is rather expositional and characters say what they feel rather than leaving it up to audience interpretation. Dialogue exchanges feel rather heavy, flat and unnatural.
Where the film suceeds is on a technical level. Justin Hurwitz’s score is fantastic and very memorable, who establishes cues early on to then develop them throughout the course of the film. His use of the theremin is particularly impressive and especially in the space sequences, really fits well. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is also impressive and there are many shots here that are breathtaking. The film is visually arresting and Chazelle estalishes a great verisimilitude with the space sequences.
Overall, First Man is an interesting film and makes some brave decisions such as heavily focussing on Armstrong’s inner feelings and his detachment from his family and society. Had the film further honed in on this, it could have been very good. However, First Man is hampered by an on-the-nose script, generally thin characterisations and only partly succeeds in its function of a biopic to tell Armstrong’s story. At least the arresting visual effects and score make the film worthwhile on a technical level but First Man is frustratingly, again Chazelle not firing on all cylingders and is ultimately an ambitious, but flawed experience.