31 October 2018

First Man review

We hear the metal of the ship groaning in protest of the immense forces being placed upon it. We see various dials and displays that are shaking so violently they're impossible to read. Over a headset, a voice gives barely audible instructions that the crafts pilot can do literally nothing about thanks to the intense G-forces that are pinning him to the back of his chair. This flight isn't graceful, or easy: it's a tiny, claustrophobic tin can that is propelling itself through sky not with finesse or grace but through nothing more than a vaguely controlled explosion that has been pointed in roughly the right direction, and the grimace of the astronauts face as he endures the shaking and hopes against hope that everything will turn out OK only worsens as the screaming of the metal gets all the louder and the shaking all the more vicious. And then, as the nose of the craft begins to glow red hot, just as you think this almost comically primitive shuttle hurtling through the air at incredible speeds can't possibly take much more: silence. Stillness. Peaceful serenity as it exits the atmosphere. Floating gently, the shuttle offers its inhabitant a beautiful glimpse of Earth from afar. It's a view that very few people are lucky enough to have seen to this day. The journey was a success - he survives, at least for now.

It's in these moments that First Man is at its very best, managing to imbue the NASA missions that Neil Armstrong and others undertook with an incredible amount of tension despite the fact that we already know what the outcomes are, fully managing to make us understand both how dangerous the early space missions were and how terrifying they must've been for those brave enough to undertake them. Sequences like this punctuate First Man's nearly two and half hour long running time throughout, each one more tense and gripping than the last.

Around those sequences First Man is a different film entirely, either giving us an abridged but still educational overview of how NASA went about putting a man on the moon, or speculating about what might've driven Neil Armstrong to become that man through the lens of his family. I say "speculating" because... well, listen. If there's one thing that folk are going to get hung upon after seeing First Man, it's that there's a beat towards the end of the film that I'm about 99% sure never happened, and only exists within the film to add extra emotional weight to the moon landing. It's director Damien Chazelle taking a huge amount of artistic licence in an attempt to tie this story up in a nice little bow, and I won't lie - it doesn't quite work. It's a very "Hollywood" moment in a film that simply doesn't need it and really doesn't suit it, reminding you that you're watching a film in all the wrong ways, and I really wish that Chazelle hadn't felt the need to make Armstrong's feelings during that moment quite so explicit.

But it's also literally no more than a minute or so in a movie that's nearly two and a half hours long, easy to ignore and even easier to forgive, especially when the rest of First Man is downright excellent - maybe not consistently (there are definitely a few spots where the film slows down just a touch too much), but certainly overall. By and large it's nothing less than a hugely effective moving, making each of its admittedly occasionally disparate parts feel engaging thanks to Chazelle's downright impeccable filmmaking, which is arguably stronger here than it's ever been before. Take, for example, Chazelle's decision to shoot the majority of the movie on small, grainy film stock - not only does this aesthetic lend First Man a sense of authenticity that is only heightened by some scenes being shot in a very documentary-esque way, it also helps make the IMAX moon landing finale feel all the more spectacular. No, there are few things here quite as flashy or overtly well-crafted as parts of La La Land, but there's also a sense of quiet confidence and simple, solid filmmaking that really, really works, proving that Chazelle isn't particularly interested in being just one kind of filmmaker, refusing to stay in whatever box his previous films have placed him in.

That isn't to say that First Man is totally different to his earlier work, however. They may be worlds apart in terms of genre or style, but First Man is still very much a story of ambition, the lengths that people might go to and the sacrifices they have to make to achieve their goals, and in that sense it actually feels surprisingly apiece with both Whiplash and La La Land, all three of them adding up to create a far more nuanced look at these topics than just one film ever could. Previously, we were left to wonder where Chazelle actually stood on the arguably ambiguous endings of his films - now, I think it's pretty clear that they're all approaching the same ideas from different angles and viewpoints, showing the greatness that can be achieved when people aim for the stars and the way those ambitions can end up driving someone down a bad path. I could be wrong, of course - there's an outside chance that Chazelle sees the story of Neil Armstrong and the story of Whiplash's Andrew Neiman as one and the same, Andrew's "victory" at the end of Whiplash justifying what he was put through in the same way that Neil Armstrong walking on the moon justified the hardships he and his family went through - but I doubt it.

All that being said, ultimately I'd struggle to argue with anyone who said that First Man isn't quite able meet the standard set by Whiplash and La La Land. Despite all its prestige and a number of fantastic performances (particularly from Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, who almost single-handedly makes the sections of First Man that deal with the Armstrongs' home life work on an emotional level), First Man is ultimately a touch too formulaic, not quite attention grabbing enough to leave the same kind of impression that Chazelle's previous films have, regardless of how solid the filmmaking is throughout. What it is, however, is proof (if proof were needed) that Damien Chazelle has a lot more variation in him than Whiplash or La La Land might've suggested - and I can't wait to see where that leads him next.

4 stars

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