By Alex Gehrlein ’19
Damien Chazelle is one of the great new filmmakers working in Hollywood today. His love of both film and music has colored his films with an undeniable passion that seeps off the screen. With his second film Whiplash, Chazelle proved himself a commanding force, and attracted the attention of major studios, leading to his next film La La Land. While La La Land is not as good as Whiplash, it holds a certain charm to it as a throwback to the bygone era of vibrant Hollywood musicals in the 40’s and 50’s. The common thread through his first three films was music, specifically jazz, which Chazelle seems to be just as obsessed with as the characters he brought to the screen. And that’s a large part of what made his movies so great: his passions. Though First Man is a very good film, it doesn’t seem to come from that same place. If anything, it seems to be a film that’s trying to prove he doesn’t need to focus on jazz to make a great movie, and while he has certainly succeeded on all technical levels, the depth is lost in translating another person’s script.
This might make it seem like I disliked the film, and I want to make it clear from the beginning that that could not be further from the truth. This is a very good film, a little reminiscent of films like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, but that’s really unavoidable when making a film about the space program.
The most impressive thing in this entire film is the way in which the actual space travel is portrayed. These men were not going into space in smooth, polished machines, but in rickety tin cans blasting out of the atmosphere at thousands of miles an hour, running on a computer less powerful than the ones we carry in our pockets these days. Even in a film like Apollo 13, where everything that can go wrong does, the space travel still seems somewhat appealing. Being an astronaut on these flights looks more like a suicide mission than a sure thing, and this presentation makes you appreciate the astronauts’ hard work even more.
Like most films, this one has its flaws. I would place most of the blame on the dissonance between writing and directing. Chazelle seems to be working out how to best portray someone else’s material, and while it isn’t bad, it’s certainly not great. This isn’t to say it’s a bad script, it’s just that the more epic moments feel very out of place with the more quiet moments at home. Maybe this is purposeful to show the disconnect between Neil’s life as an astronaut and his life as a father? I don’t know. I’d probably have to watch it again to come up with a more solid opinion on this.
The performances were great all around, almost as great as the visuals, but Ryan Reynolds and Claire Foy shine out above the rest as Neil and Janet Armstrong. They felt like a realistic couple, and compellingly showed the stress these events must have had on their real life counterparts. Though they weren’t on the same level as this year’s other, great movie couple, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born, their performances certainly deserve recognition, and both should have a good chance of seeing nominations in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress Oscar categories respectively.
If you want to see Chazelle at his best, see Whiplash or La La Land. If you’re interested in American history, space travel, or just good filmmaking, see First Man. It’s not on the same level as his past work, but I could not say I regret seeing it.