Venice 2018

Damien Chazelle’s First Man

On Film / The Daily — Aug 30, 2018

Damien Chazelle’s First Man, with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, has opened the seventy-fifth Venice Film Festival, and it’s being greeted with a solid first round of reviews. This is Chazelle’s fourth feature after Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), Whiplash (2014), and La La Land (2016)—for which he won a best directing Oscar—but the first he hasn’t written himself. Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) has based his screenplay on James R. Hansen’s 2005 biography and, writing for IndieWire, Michael Nordine sums up the overall critical reaction well by calling First Man “an anti-thriller of rare intensity.”

Apart from an evidently riveting opening scene, in which Armstrong pilots an experimental aircraft so high in 1961 that NASA tells him he’s “bouncing off the atmosphere,” and a finale capturing that history-making first step on the moon, Chazelle has tamped down on the histrionics and patriotic fervor often associated with the Apollo 11 mission. “Wisely,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “Chazelle has opted to leave spectacle to the blockbusters and instead aims for awe—which is related, but different, and harder to pull off. The former shows you something you haven’t seen before. The latter involves showing you something you see every day from a perspective that makes it newly strange.”

At the Film Stage, Leonardo Goi adds that First Man “unmistakably” bears the marks of Chazelle’s previous work. “Gosling’s Neil Armstrong fits nicely in the universe of career-driven, uber-determined workaholics the thirty-three-year-old director has been following since Whiplash. But in its tragic undertones, complex psychological edifice, and claustrophobic visuals, First Man stands out, in both content and form, as a remarkable, jaw-dropping departure from anything Chazelle has previously made.”

Gosling is winning plaudits for his portrayal of a man who, as the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw puts it, lacks “what no one in the 1960s called emotional intelligence. The film suggests that this absence of a normal human boiling point is vital to his success: he stays cool and focused in the spacecraft under conditions that would reduce most people to a blinding panic.” Claire Foy (The Crown, Unsane) plays Armstrong’s wife with, as Time’s Stephanie Zacharek notes, “a great deal of astronaut-wife fortitude,” and Corey Stoll is scoring special mentions for his turn as Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. “Stoll has droll moments as the bluntly opinionated Aldrin, who keeps a sufficient lid on the showboating to allow him to remain likable,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “But the large, predominantly male ensemble generally works more as a cohesive unit than as individual characters.”

For Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, the “absolute knockout performance” actually comes from cinematographer Linus Sandgren (American Hustle, La La Land), who shoots “in deliciously grainy 16 mm and 35 mm and, when we finally get to the moon, cracking open the widescreen glory of 70 mm IMAX.” Sandgren’s work, combined with Tom Cross’s “hypnotic editing,” makes First Man “so immersive in its glitchy, hurtling, melting-metal authenticity,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “that it makes a space drama like Apollo 13 look like a puppet show.” And back to Michael Nordine: “Space Force notwithstanding, we tend not to look at the night sky the way we used to; Chazelle restores some of that wonder.”


More from John Bleasdale (Sight & Sound), Alonso Duralde (TheWrap), Fionnuala Halligan (Screen), Thomas Humphrey (ScreenAnarchy), David Lister (Independent), and Adam Woodward (Little White Lies). And Stephen Galloway profiles Chazelle for the Hollywood Reporter.

For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.