It’s safe to say that a new Damien Chazelle feature is going to be one of my most anticipated films of the year. The director’s last two films, Whiplash and La La Land, each warranted a rare five star rating from me despite significant stylistic differences.
Unfortunately, First Man falls far short of perfect for me. Telling the tale of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), Chazelle occasionally grasps the grandeur of his preceding films. When Armstrong is trapped above the Earth’s atmosphere in perilous circumstances, he channels the bone-deep anxiety that reverberated through Whiplash. When we surge above the Earth, or land upon the moon, he embraces the spectacle of La La Land, Linus Sandgren’s lensing drawing upon Kubrick and Malick with equal measure (if not quite equal effectiveness, relying too heavily on handheld shakiness).
The fundamental problem with First Man is its protagonist. Chazelle characterises Armstrong as a taciturn workaholic, traumatised by his young daughter’s death but otherwise borderline unemotional, as mechanical as the rocket that launches him into space. It might be an accurate portrayal of the real man, but it provides too little foundation for a film that is, at its core, intended to be a character study.