Helming the darling of the 2016 awards season, La La Land director Damien Chazelle returns to the 2018 Venice Film Festival with First Man, premiering at the 75th edition of the international event. First Man is the sophomore collaboration of much of the powerhouse team behind the hit film, namely director Chazelle, composer Justin Hurwitz, cinematographer Linus Sangdren, and leading man Ryan Gosling. The success of La La Land was astonishing. It not only swept the Venetian Volpi Cup for leading actress Emma Stone, but also earned Chazelle the title of the Academy’s youngest Best Director. First Man unequivocally had large shoes to fill.
The film is set in the decade leading up to the successful 1969 Apollo 11 mission to land a man on the moon. It follows the progression of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from a grounded pilot, to the eponymous ‘first man’. The film is yet another biopic, one of Hollywood’s current favourite formats for directors sniffing for Academy Award nominations. Unlike Chazelle’s previous two hits, the director himself did not write the screenplay. Instead it was adapted by Josh Singer, based upon ‘First Man: The Life of Neil. A. Armstrong’ by James R. Hansen. This is quite telling. One wonders why Chazelle, whose previous film was very much a passion project, would choose to do this one, besides in the hope to win more awards? The confusion over the reason behind this film, and the film’s message, is prevalent from the opening scene to its abrupt conclusion.
First Man opens with Neil Armstrong as an engineering pilot on a test flight into the atmosphere. While the flight is overall a success, Armstrong gets into difficulties as the craft begins to bounce above the atmosphere at alarming levels. The shaky extreme close-ups of Gosling’s face, combined with the annoyingly muffled dialogue that has one relying on subtitles, attempts to establish a tense atmosphere that sets the tone for the rest of the film. This attempt, however, falls flat. While this is potentially an intriguing way to draw the audience in, it is also a crucial misstep as the difficulty to engage with the scene misses those few precious moments to grab the audience’s attention. It is difficult to find any real tension for Armstrong’s situation, when not only is this the character’s introduction, but also due to an affliction that plagues biopic films: the majority of the audience already know the outcome. Creating engaging tension is a true artform that John Krasinski exemplified with A Quiet Place earlier this year and which Chazelle himself portrayed in Whiplash. One could argue that perhaps Chazelle is just more suited to directing his own original work rather than attempting to direct someone else’s adaptation of an adaptation of historical events.
Chazelle does achieve his plan of using the opening scene to set the film’s tone, but clearly not in the way he intended. Rather than creating the tension, it sets up the jumbled, muddled confusion of the film’s message. Upon the First Man’s conclusion, one still wonders what the point of the film actually was, and it is a film that is unlikely to be re-watched time and time again. This is now the third outing in a row that Chazelle has made a film surrounding the cost of success; while this evidently worked for Emma Stone’s character in La La Land, it does not work for Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong. Again, the originality of La La Land gave rise to people’s enduring love of the film’s sad, costly ending. The issue with First Man is, again, that the ending is already known. The outcome of which the majority of people are aware of is also usually portrayed as a positive one: Apollo 11 did land successfully on the moon, so what is the real cost here? So again, there is not much at stake for the central character. In fact the majority of the film flirts with the increasingly taut marriage between Neil and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), yet ends abruptly with the couple’s wordless, yet somehow positive, reunion at NASA’s quarantine. Truthfully, Armstrong’s family feel surplus to the events of the film.
Such a scene echoes a common trend in First Man. The film keeps trying to reach some emotional level, but never quite manages it. If one watched First Man without knowing of the success of the Apollo 11 mission, one would be forgiven for thinking that the mission failed. The film consistently implies that Armstrong’s dedication to the space race will cost him everything – perhaps his family, or even his life – which then never comes to fruition, yet is also never resolved. In fact, one could say that the film even conveys the success of the mission as a surprising twist.
First Man’s pacing is also a defining factor in the failure of the costly success theme. The film is a slow burn to watch as it inches slowly towards the Apollo 11 mission. Yet from the moment that they land on the moon, the pacing hits the other end of the spectrum, almost in a race to quickly finish. The payoff from watching the film is non-existent. This tense relationship that Chazelle portrays between Armstrong and his sons, Ricky (Gavin Warren) and Martin, and his wife Janet, is never fully addressed. The final scenes between Armstrong and Janet before the mission launch, are emotional to watch at the time, but offer little lasting effect. After the accidental death of their neighbour, Armstrong’s NASA colleague Ed (Jason Clarke), Foy’s Janet increasingly becomes concerned for Armstrong’s safety. Whilst packing to leave, Janet tearfully begs Armstrong to speak to his sons, to which she is ignored. With tears brimming in her eyes at Armstrong’s refusal to tell his own sons that he may not be coming home, Janet snatches his briefcase and throws it against the wall. Whilst powerful and extremely well-acted by both Foy and Gosling, this scene retrospectively becomes one of the biggest disappointments of the film. To have a scene with such clear dissonance between the previously happily-married couple, and then never truly follow it up, is a disservice to the audience whom have by now become invested in the characters. We never see Neil and Janet speak after, besides the final wordless scene through the glass. Therefore, again, the film falls short of making a concerned point as one can assume that Armstrong’s ‘costly success’ just doesn’t exist in the end: there are no repercussions arising from the instability of his marriage – which feels like a very cheap ending, and enunciates the film’s aimlessness. The small glimmers of brilliance are dulled by the lack of follow-up.
The cast were truly let down by the film. Claire Foy, who features so prominently in the trailers, makes only a limited appearance. This is a great disservice for the audience, as Foy is electric in every scene she is in. After Armstrong bails from his colleague Elliot’s funeral, Janet is driven home by neighbours Pat (Olivia Hamilton) and Ed. Her bereft grief when she states that Armstrong never mentions their deceased daughter Karen (Lucy Stafford), is horrifying. Foy brings a powerful and likable force to the film. It is just a shame that she has such limited screen time.
Opposite Foy, Gosling also extends a performance worthy of recognition. An actor can only run so far with the material that they are given, and yet Gosling delivers arguably one of his best performances. Although a generally fantastic actor, Gosling can sometimes translate oddly to the big screen, which is thankfully not the case here. Gosling’s Armstrong, for the most part, is effortlessly charismatic and likable – he stands up against the bullying nature of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), and seems like a good-hearted man. Akin to Foy, Gosling also delivers powerful moments throughout the film. Most notably, is the quiet moment where Armstrong sneaks away to hide the dedicated diary that he kept for his daughter during her radiation therapy treatments. In this moment of solitude during his late daughter’s wake, Armstrong breaks down sobbing, alone and bereft at his loss. Gosling truly conveys the horrifying reality of a father losing his child, and does so in an eloquent and devastating way. It is just a shame, however, that this moment is somewhat cheapened by the film’s overwhelming predictability. First Man grapples with Armstrong’s loss of Karen, and briefly touches upon the cliché enforced masculine stoicism in the face of emotion. Unfortunately, the middle of the film loses this thread. During a press conference prior to the launch, Armstrong is asked what object he’ll take to the moon. It is incredibly obvious that he intends to take Karen’s bracelet, and it’s of no surprise when he gently lets it go into a lunar crater. It is just a shame that what was so clearly intended to be an emotional, powerful moment is cheapened by its predictability. Furthermore, the act itself is another product of the jumbled aimless plot of a film that can’t decide what its message is: tossing the bracelet away is symbolic of Armstrong letting go of Karen, which is a bizarre turn of events for someone that refuses to talk about his daughter for the majority of the film.
Unsurprisingly, First Man doesn’t really know what to do with Neil Armstrong. Yes, he is clearly intended as the protagonist to root for, but his total disregard for his sons is alarming. It is hard to ascertain how Chazelle intends for Armstrong to be viewed by the audience. The man shows little in the way of emotion towards Ricky and Martin, and when being forced to say goodbye to them prior to launching, he seems almost bothered by their presence. Even the damning comment by his eldest Ricky: “But you might not [come back]” elicits no emotional response from Armstrong. This is not necessarily a fault on Gosling’s part but is a misstep nonetheless. One could argue that it is a commentary on the toxic masculinity of repressing one’s emotions back in the 1960s, yet it is also a reflection of how the film is unsure of what it is, which comes out in the bizarre conflict of the main character.
Although Chazelle struggles to create effective tension, he has mastered the art of comedy. For a biopic drama riddled with death and tragedy, First Man is a surprisingly funny film. The comedic timing is perfect. Janet’s anecdote about Armstrong re-writing the lyrics to a Gilbert and Sullivan song whilst in college, naming it ‘The Land of Egelloc’ to the absolute bemusement of Elliott (Patrick Fugit) and Ed, is a genuinely humorous moment. This moment would have served even more brilliantly as a way to demonstrate the deterioration of the relationship between the couple, had the film followed through with that plot point.
For all the film’s faults, it is undeniable that First Man is a visually stunning spectacle (which is truthfully of little surprise – cinematographer Linus Sangdren scooped the Academy Award, BAFTA, and 19 other awards for his work on La La Land). With a film where the majority of people who will see it are already aware of the outcome, it takes a special skill set to truly capture the audience’s imagination, which Sangdren easily manages to do through visuals. First Man is the successor in a long line of space-orientated films, but it is perhaps the first to capture the true stress of space travel, and the vastness just beyond our atmosphere. While it is a shame that, for a film spent building up to the moon landing they spend very little time on the lunar surface, Sangdren makes the wait worthwhile. There is a stunning close-up on Armstrong in his space suit, his golden visor reflecting the moon’s vast grey surface. Sangdren manages to evoke the child-like awe of space, with breathtaking views of the atmosphere from the very beginning of the film, to the inevitable moon landing. Truly, the effects here are also second to none, and it enables a suspension of disbelief which gives an immersive experience that we really are seeing these characters in space.
Justin Hurwitz’s score perfectly complements the film. The choice to use several Theremin-inspired pieces, on paper, seems an almost laughable cliché. Yet it works brilliantly within the context of the film. The eerie tones emphasize the characters’ stress, and the drum beats, trumpets, and strings during the lunar landing enhances the scene ten-fold.
Considering La La Land premiered at Venice, and then went on to achieve a record number of Academy Award nominations, it is of no surprise that First Man would be held to such a high standard. It is disappointing that Chazelle appears to have fallen into the mindset of ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’; Chazelle found success with two films exploring the cost of success and thus attempted to replicate this with First Man. Instead, Chazelle has delivered a biopic that can’t seem to make up its mind about what it’s about. It is instead aimless, and a chore to watch. Perhaps Chazelle’s apparent fascination with exploring the cost of success has evolved beyond his filmography, and instead plagues him. Chazelle delivered two successful films on this theme, but by attempting to shoe-horn this theme to Armstrong’s story, he has made a predictable film with seldom any high stakes and little memorable clout. Perhaps the disappointment that comes after seeing First Man is the cost of Chazelle’s own success.