First Man (2018): A look at the life of the astronaut, Neil Armstrong, and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.
Damien Chazelle is BACK. After setting Hollywood ablaze with the 1-2 punch of triumphs Whiplash and La La Land, (in my opinion two of the best films I've reviewed on this blog) the studio executives at Universal decided to give the director a chance to put himself squarely in the realm of “blank check” directors. (To join the upper A-list of names like Spielberg, Nolan, and Fincher, to name a few.) And that, in short, sums up what First Man is: an audition. So does Chazelle pass the bar? ……..yes and no. (Oscar, can I set myself up for a question that I don't answer? No? Well, I'm gonna do it anyway….)
So here's the long-form answer to that question, because it's my job to over explain things. This is an ambitious film. As do most biopics that cover huge ground, the film bites off way more than it can chew, but it manages to show its intimacy in the individual scenes. For example, Claire Foy plays Armstrong's wife, Janet Shearon, and isn't given nearly enough to do. (As would be expected in a film about her husband.) She's basically “the wife,” which shouldn't come as much surprise. But in her criminally limited on-screen time, Claire Foy delivers one of the best “the wife” roles I've ever seen. Shearon’s dominating presence is felt all throughout the film that she's not featured nearly enough in. Makes sense, right? At the center of it all, though, is Gosling's reserved performance of Neil Armstrong. It doesn't bring a prestigious “Oscar-worthy” title with it, but it effectively paints the picture of a quiet and almost socially awkward figure who is probably just as surprised he's a titanic hero of recent American history as we, the viewer, are to discover he was not oozing with charm and charisma. While at many points this is the film's hidden strength, it also serves to be its greatest weakness, as moments that should be intimate and emotionally devastating become as awkwardly uncomfortable as Armstrong, the man, was. If anything, it goes to showcase why this iconic moment in history has been largely avoided by Hollywood cinema over the years.
One thing that has no doubt in its magnificence, though, is the technical side of First Man. This film is a visual marvel, and if you are going to see it try and see it on the biggest screen that you can find. The film features multiple thrilling setpieces, and while it does cheat at points in said setpieces with close-ups of Armstrong throughout the take offs and landings, and unnecessary shaky cam, it does not skimp on all of them. (The take off of Apollo 11 in particular is spectacular.) Additionally, the film's sound design and editing is incredible, to the point that its beauty is downright distracting at times. But expect Oscar nominations for the sound department this Oscar season. Finally, Justin Hurwitz, Damien Chazelle’s personal composer, continues to showcase why he REALLY needs to branch out to every movie ever, because once again his music is spectacular. It's subtle while still memorable, subdued while still dominating. Hurwitz walks all the tightropes. Please, dude. Put yourself in more films ASAP. (Sits by the door and waits for my First Man soundtrack to arrive.)
So one would think after reading all of that, the answer to the question of “Did Damien Chazelle pass his audition to join the upper echolon of Hollywood directors?” with First Man would be a resounding, "Yes." And yet….I'm not so sure because of one real reason, and it's kind of an important one: box office results. See, I have the luxury of being able to jump on a soapbox here because it's Wednesday and the film has been out almost a full week (time-stamping when I wrote this review!) and that's long enough to see the film is performing well under expectations. And I'm worried that Chazelle is going to front the blame for this, and it makes me sad. Because it's not his fault at all. Take a second, step back, and ask yourself: who is this movie for? Who is the target audience? This is where the problems lie, because it's not going for elitist intellectual types. It's going for the American Sniper crowd. A crowd that has effectively turned its back on liberal Hollywood unless the 'Murica themes are over-the-top obvious. (And not showing Buzz Aldrin plant the American flag in the moon does not bode well to showcase those overtly patriotic themes. Honestly, while it's not a necessary inclusion, I'm not really sure why they didn't include it, either. There's my #HotTake, Oscar.) But I'm worried that the studio execs will look at this performance, flip out, and look for someone to blame. And that someone will likely be Chazelle, which is a real shame. However, I sincerely hope Chazelle is given a blank check for his next film because, for picking something that he wasn't even passionate about a few years ago, (he knew almost nothing about the moon landing, and had no interest in it, but reading the book from James R. Hansen changed his mind) I think he did a pretty good job. And while the finished product falls just short of greatness (which is, admittedly, a let down from his previous works) Damien Chazelle further showcases with First Man that he should be a household name among the very top directors in the business. Whether that actually happens, however, is yet to be seen.
My Number: 7.5/10
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