Before the 2017 Oscars, Damien Chazelle appeared primed to take Hollywood by storm. His first film “Whiplash” received universal acclaim and brought him into the eyes of the public, and his second film “La La Land” was favored to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
This was, of course, until the infamous “Moonlight” moment of the 2017 Oscars, where “La La Land” was falsely announced as the best picture winner, only for “Moonlight” to be revealed as the true winner.
Chazelle’s third film, “First Man,” follows a familiar pattern of rising directors attempting biopics. The auteur takes on the true story of the American Space Race and the journey of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) to be the first man to land on the moon, to mixed results.
Going into the film, I expected a similar story to Chazelle’s other films, where the male lead must sacrifice his personal life in order to achieve greatness, with moments of pure cinematic muscle-flexing through Chazelle’s set pieces. However, he opted for a different approach in his first true-to-life film.
In “First Man,” the difficulty lies in balancing the quests for greatness and love, as Armstrong must balance the challenges of the Space Race with the turmoil of his young daughter’s death. Instead of presenting Armstrong’s story as one where he had to choose career over family, Chazelle opted for the much more nuanced approach of showing how Armstrong’s family motivated him to become the first man on the moon.
While this choice is welcomed considering the problematic element of Chazelle’s first two films –– the idea that men must remove women from their lives in order to achieve greatness –– the film never seems to earn the cathartic response that it clearly tries to gain from its audience.
Chazelle’s second biggest departure from his previous style is the film’s distinct lack of big set-piece moments, which is especially significant, given the story’s focus on space travel. Instead of jaw-dropping, wide shots of the Apollo 11 soaring above the atmosphere, the film treats the audience to close-ups of terrified astronauts strapped into machines that look more like amusement park rides than spaceships.
Furthermore, Chazelle replaces the expected patriotic monologues stressing the importance of space travel as a new frontier of manifest destiny with small moments of genuine strife between Armstrong and his family.
Due in large part to the star-making performance of Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, the small moments between Armstrong and his family make the best moments of the film. Chazelle shoots these scenes in a bare-bones style, and they make the relationship between the Armstrongs and their two children the heart of the film.
No moment reflects this strength more than the climax of the film. Without spoiling it, I will just say that Armstrong’s walk on the moon becomes less about a historic breakthrough, and rather more about a personal one.
However, the film’s greatest strength is also its greatest flaw. All of these scenes of Armstrong and his family, especially the climax, work well on their own, but they don’t quite work well with each other. As amazing as the scenes of Armstrong interacting with his family are, they do not create a throughline that the film’s characters follow.
Instead, we are just told we are supposed to feel the way the characters do. This creates an impressive climax because of Chazelle’s and Gosling’s talent, but one that simultaneously feels completely unearned.
“First Man” is a great film in the abstract, where Chazelle’s camera brilliantly films the affecting moments of grief and pathos. However, in viewing the film as a whole, these moments fail to fully connect with each other, creating a situation where, as a viewer, I felt like the film tried to trick me into feeling something that was not quite there in the first place.
Ultimately, “First Man” is a collection of great moments that never come together well enough to stick the landing.
Ben Hafetz is a media studies and politics double major at Pitzer College. He likes to not only see movies, but also tell his friends why they should or should not like certain ones.