3 ½ (out of 4)
Damien Chazelle hasn’t set forth one false step as a burgeoning filmmaker. Following critical and popular breakthroughs as sublimely exhibitionist as Whiplash and La La Land, the youngest Best Director Oscar winner in history finally forgoes involvement in writing to offer his first film not to originate directly from his own inspiration. First Man is not just a customary biopic, however; Chazelle’s fervor regarding everything cinematic, in addition to his admiration for Neil Armstrong's attributes, emits the auteurist fumes of his proven prolific qualifications.
Returning to the cinema vérité camerawork of his unassuming debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench – the lo-fi musical romance prototype for La La Land, which remains his most visually and emotionally accomplished film to date – Chazelle exhibits First Man with many fewer degrees of obsessive directorial control than his recent films. Linus Sandgren's cinematography is vibrating and voluptuous, employing documentary-style footage to implement handheld intimacy and authenticate 60s-era textures. But a lessening of sheer scrupulousness in favor of palpable realism is precisely why this take on history is so dynamic and Chazelle's sensibility towards the spectacle of space travel is so idiosyncratic. He outdoes Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, Dunkirk) at not only the sentimental challenges of impactful interstellar epics but also in aerial photography, sound design and properly presented IMAX 70mm photography. The 33-year-old director comes away from his most Hollywood-trimmed, awards-oiled film yet looking like the next Spielberg (predictably one of the producers) rather than another haughty brewer of above-average blockbusters.
Ryan Gosling’s borderline autistic impassivity couldn’t be any better suited for someone as painstakingly insular and disciplined – Gosling's still too much of the Goose we all love instead of the first man himself, but the film still confirms he and Chazelle are a godly cinematic pairing. Claire Foy continues to make 2018 her year – following phenomenal work in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane and with her incarnation of the Dragon Tattoo Girl around the corner – as Armstrong’s resilient wife. Foy and Gosling are an onscreen couple of rare verisimilitude and the drama they are able to impart from Josh Singer's script supersedes his other historical awards fare like Spotlight and The Post. Singer sensibly portions personal sacrifice over jingoist history.
First Man's model of the extravagance and magnitude of the space race is crystalline, with every relevant curiosity and danger from the bygone era of scientific exploration included. Fifty years later the skepticism towards NASA’s value at taxpayer expense is practically the same. In relation to the revival of space movies, Ridley Scott (The Martian), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) and Nolan were unable to grasp at anything remotely sympathetic or human in their depictions of "real science." Whether it's bland humor, simplified and shoehorned exposition or emotional ploys, they all floundered artistically despite technical prowess. Chazelle's strategies in First Man are so subdued, straightforward and realistic that the clichés of the typical historic Oscar-bait can't weasel their way in and spoil things. Wearers of tinfoil hats might protest, but even though Chazelle's so polished at fiction his vision of the real world and the moon landing (the one that Kubrick didn't direct) is credible and unmistakable.
With America’s feat as a forgone conclusion, Chazelle’s focus on the absurd and terrifying risks of Armstrong’s position aligns First Man with the unifying themes of his filmography – the honor of exceptionalism at the expense of personal and familial tranquility. Like Armstrong himself, Chazelle is a considerate and prudent risk-taker, even when exercising his highest budget on his safest and weakest mainstream film thus far. First Man is a great film regardless because Chazelle's universal attitudes transcend biography and domestic triumphs. His rapid assimilation as master of multiple genres and his expert assemblage of music (the wonderful long-time partner Justin Hurwitz), editing and performance is a surplus of evidence to Chazelle's own comfortable cinematic dexterity.
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