Kicking off the 75th Venice Film Festival is Damien Chazelle’s First Man, the hotly anticipated follow-up to the award-winning La La Land. It comes out on German screens on November 8. Here’s our First Look Review, straight from the Lido…
Damien Chazelle’s hotly anticipated follow-up to La La Land sees the 33-year-old French-American director reunite with Ryan Gosling to tackle the story of how Neil Armstrong got his space boots on Stanley Kubrick’s set, thus setting in motion one of the most elaborate fibs in the history of mankind’s modern achievements. More seriously, his ambitious biopic chronicles how, from 1961 to 1969, NASA rattled their brains over how its astronauts could slip the surly bonds of Earth and beat those pesky Russkies to the moon. So, it’s out with the jazz and in with leaving the Earth’s gravitational pull… And impressively, Chazelle fares rather well outside his comfort zone. He’s relinquished the scriptwriting reins and taken a giant leap for his fourth feature, delivering what seems to be his bid to graduate to Spielbergian levels of spectacle. (It’s no surprise that The Beard is credited as an executive producer here.) His efforts can only be applauded, as he keeps the story compelling and maintains your eyes tensely glued to altitude dials and fuel gauges, despite everyone knowing the outcome of the mission. He handles the scale of the story with aplomb and strives for a stringent realism every step of the way, making sure that at no point do you wonder whether all the jargon and spacecraft dashboards are anything but accurate.
Matching this impressive desire for authenticity is Chazelle’s frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz’ equally impressive craft. Hurwitz’ sound design takes the lion’s share of the film’s impact, with every distressing creak of the metallic bolts heard, and some suitably bracing sonic bursts, especially in the third act, when a hatch opening raises the pulse and a pregnant silence back on Earth speak volumes. The sound and a frequently subjective camera conspire to make certain scenes truly immersive; those taking place inside what is essentially a lunar sarcophagus lack the average space-glam seen in countless other films and are genuinely disorientating.
On a less positive note, I can’t deny I found my emotional investment waning somewhat. I even surprised myself by siding with one of Armstrong’s sons when his mother tells him that his dad’s going to the moon. “Okay”, he faintly accepts. “Can I go play outside now?” In wisely electing to make a character study and First Man’s core about the personal cost of space exploration – Armstrong loses colleagues, progressively alienates himself from his wife Janet (a gimlet-eyed Claire Foy), and mourns his daughter, who passed away at an early age from a malignant brain tumour – Chazelle strangely struggles to make some beats resonate on a more profound level. Granted, a certain despondency mirrors Armstrong’s own, and an occasional smattering of humour in Josh Singer’s script prevents certain scenes from descending into easy melodrama, something Clint Eastwood (who was originally linked to the project) would have embraced with cloying ease. That, and huge swathes of patriotism, which are thankfully AWOL here. But even if a final tête-a-tête in which an increasingly dejected Armstrong answers his boys’ questions as if he were facing the press core is a particular highlight – and subtly tugs on the heartstrings when his eldest gives him a handshake in lieu of a goodbye hug – you can’t help but feel considerably more texture could have been added if the families left behind got more screen time. We get tantalising glimpses of this when Janet comforts the catatonic widow of one of Neil’s colleagues, seeing in her not only a lost soul in need of help but also a very plausible glimpse into her future. Claire Foy makes the absolute most of moments like these in what is a rather thankless role. She even sells a shameless Oscar clip when she calls out the NASA crew for being “a bunch of boys who don’t have anything under control”, despite a lack of a credible build up towards that particular outburst.
On the whole, and despite a slightly disappointing straightforwardness to its execution, there’s still every reason to suspect that First Man will see Chazelle go three for three when it comes to Oscar season, Whiplash and La La Land having both been Best Picture nominated. The Academy have notorious weak knees for historical figures and will doubtlessly embrace the film. However, for all its technical and visual mastery, as well as two strong leading turns, I doubt that First Man ends up adorning the young director’s mantlepiece with another golden baldie. You can land a man on the moon but getting the Academy to correctly announce the name of your next film when it comes to the Best Picture category… Now, that’s hard.
First Man | Directed by Damien Chazelle (US, 2018), with Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy. Starts November 8.