Perhaps the most surprising thing about First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s latest, is how little the director tries to narratively subvert the limited trappings of biography. As played by Ryan Gosling, Neil Armstrong is an aloof, melancholic professional whose motivations are largely unclear (to the film’s credit) until they aren’t (to the film’s detriment). While considering what makes an iconic figure of such docile temperament tick may make for an interesting thought experiment, the approach is neither thrilling nor enlightening in execution, and in effect gives little room for any other characters to substantially develop. Formally, Chazelle fares far better. His elaborate flourishes in past films here give way to more intimate, textured visuals, even sporadically riffing on Malick’s penchant for swirling, narrative-overlaid push-ins. And in a direct refutation of the expected bombast that comes with the interstellar setting, Chazelle smartly chooses to couch much of the dramatic action within the claustrophobic interiors of rocket modules, with the camera often shooting the abstracted black of space through limited-view windows. Supplementing this is Chazelle’s aural design: utilizing his frequent collaborator Justin Hurwitz’s (La La Land, Whiplash), this comparatively austere score mines maximum tension from small moments. But craft can only carry First Man so far. An insipid approach to character and a miscalculated elongation of a climactic release proves the final beat in a film that trends downwards from its thrilling opening sequence.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 5.