Most directors – most artists even – have their own obsessions, interests and themes that recur regularly in their work, even when the subject matters otherwise vary greatly. American director Damien Chazelle has now made four feature films – and after the first three most would not have hesitated to claim that his films were primarily about music, the one thing that Whiplash and La La Land had in common, the former treating it as obsession while the latter treating it as passion, the former overwhelming and claustrophobic and the latter freewheeling and fun. Like most people, I’ve yet to see his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. But the trumpet on the poster gives away the fact that it’s yet another film with music at its heart.
But there is very little music in First Man, less music then in most films – perhaps a reference to the lack of sound in space. Because this is a film about Neil Armstrong, the one and only first man to take a giant leap with a single step. You know the story. We first see him in a small fighter jet during the Korean war, possibly about to crash. It says something about the movie that I had to google it afterwards to be sure which war it was, even if Korea was always the most likely. Chazelle doesn’t spoon-feed the audience with information, but it sometimes goes a bit too far and the film becomes wilfully vague for no apparent reason.
Yet there is a theme that goes through Chazelle’s last three films, they are all about what people are ready to sacrifice for their dreams. Whiplash showed us a teacher and a student where neither seemed to mind if they’d sacrifice the student’s sanity and happiness for musical excellence, La La Land is about two lovers ready to sacrifice love for fame and fortune and here we see a man ready to give up his life and make his children fatherless for the goal of reaching the moon.
I’ll admit I had limited interest in Armstrong’s family life when entering the theatre – I was more interested in that little moon trip he was undertaking. Yet the film seems for most of it’s running time intent on being a family drama rather than a space drama.
Armstrong loses his young daughter early in the film and it literally colours the rest of it – the colour palette is always very dark and gloomy. This is a house of sorrows and that doesn’t really improve much when Armstrong’s colleagues lose their lives during dangerous test flights. This is a convincing sorrow, overwhelming and endless – but not very involving, we never get to know the characters deeply enough to truly feel for them. Instead you just wait for Armstrong and Aldrin to enter the moon and say those lines we all know are coming – and curiously enough the film finally becomes less gloomy when we enter the darkness of space.
Armstrong is played by Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling, yet this is far from your typical hero – Gosling rarely turns the charm on, if anything he rather plays him as even slightly autistic. You even wonder if the title doesn’t just refer to him as the first man on the moon, but also as the prototype man, or to be precise: the prototype emotionally crippled man who seems likely to destroy his own family by his inability to articulate his feelings.
Yet the film actually brightens up just before they enter their famous flight, that last year when they can sense the dream approaching reality. The moment where they first turn music on in space is magical – yet reminds you of the film’s principal weakness; the fact that while Chazelle’s passion for music is never in doubt, you don’t really feel his passion for space travel in the same way and it really hurts the film. The scenes set in spaceships during trial runs also become repetitive – it shows us little more then worried men in constantly shaking metal cans and you don’t really learn much more from those scenes then that. Yet perhaps that’s the point, that they were fumbling in the dark, trying to do something nobody really knew how to do.
The occasional deluded nationalist has also complained about the absence of a flag scene in the film, that moment the American flag is planted on the surface – a ridiculous complaint, since nothing in the film calls for it and in fact it’s a smart omission if anything – but I would rather complain about a few things the movie hints at without ever truly exploring and linking it to the story, things like the politics of the time, a time of not just the Cold War but also an actual war in Vietnam amongst other things, all those things that made many comment on the futility of this quest. Yet it’s worth giving Chazelle credit for going down a rather unusual and difficult path towards this well-known tale, sadly it doesn’t quite work.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson