B ased on the success of his other films, Damien Chazelle must wrestle with certain expectations for his biopic of Neil Armstrong. Perhaps in response to this, or just for the sake of experimentation, it would appear he has tried to counter his own style in deliberately diametric ways. The fluidity and and vibrancy in La La Land’s aesthetic becomes bleak, choppy, and unstable. The rich and intense atmosphere which carries Whiplash become stark and austere. Chazelle’s directorial stamp, up until now, has been measured and sumptuous, revelling in theatrical lighting, audacious camera setups, and characters with strong emotional presence. By untethering himself from these characteristics he seems to be attempting something new, but fails to see how fighting against those creative instincts makes First Man far too conventional and uninvolving in narrative, while overwriting any originality or compelling content with distracting cinematography.
Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong and gives a respectable performance matched by his co-star, Claire Foy, who plays his wife, Janette. Their believability includes the naturalness which both actors possess, as well as their placement in an impeccably designed 1960s setting. The pair hardly get the chance to really impress with their performances, however, because both are underwritten and Chazelle’s direction robs them of much needed intimacy and breathing room. The story is divided between stripped down depictions of Armstrong’s work at NASA and brief interludes of marital discord which never develop into more than the characters sulking and running into communication barriers. There’s an attempt to portray the complexity of their relationship, but those attempts never go so far as to really unpack them.
By far the most damaging decision made in direction was to shoot the entire film in handheld. The technique works in a more high-energy, action oriented story where we know the characters, the ins and outs of the situation, and the entirety of what’s at stake. When telling a story about Neil Armstrong in a way that’s meant to illuminate his inner life and fill in what we don’t know about his work, we need distance and clarity to fully absorb the story, the feelings, and the complexity of the characters. Not only is the shaking camera distracting and sometimes nauseating, but it never lets us into the domestic space inhabited by Armstrong, his wife, and the other astronauts involved in the Gemini and Apollo missions.
There are a few positives which do escape the otherwise messy execution. Chazelle regular Justin Hurwitz has created an intense, revelatory score which resurrects the wonder and awe of the now decades-old space race. And although the handheld cinematography obliterates most of the emotional life in the film, there are still a few still shots which harkon back to the colorful, photographic beauty which Chazelle mastered in his previous work. The last twenty minutes or so somewhat redeem the rests of the film by appropriately slowing down and basking in the glory of the cosmos, beautifully reliving those first small steps which proved to be giant leaps. | Nic Champion