Damien Chazelle's 'First Man' Is An Immaculately Crafted, Old-Fashioned Epic [Venice Review]

Space travel is full of paradoxes. And almost all of them stem from the mind-spinning disparities of scale involved: gargantuan distances traveled to leave one tiny footprint; billions of dollars incinerated and whole lives lost because of one faulty wire; an obscenely inky infinity engulfing one cramped cockpit; the entire history of human endeavor hanging in the balance of one split-second decision — one synapse firing, or not, in one single brain. Steering an astonishingly accomplished path between the small steps and the giant leaps of the Apollo 11 mission, 2017’s Best Director Damien Chazelle opens the 75th Venice Film Festival with “First Man,” an immersive, immaculately crafted, often spectacular and satisfyingly old-fashioned epic that may well become the definitive moon-landing movie.

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The achievement is all the greater because of one significant handicap — a central figure characterized by reserve and reticence. In Robert Zemeckis‘ underrated “Contact,” Jodie Foster‘s pioneering astronaut peers out into the indescribable beyond and gasps “They should have sent a poet.” But in 1969 they did not, they sent Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). And though the ex-Air Force test pilot would briefly become the most famous man not on this planet, afterward he largely shunned celebrity and lived so private a life that it wasn’t until 2002 that he even agreed to let anyone write his official biography.

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That book, by James Hansen, forms the source material for the Josh Singer‘s spartan screenplay, and while there are personal demons and motivations revealed, really it requires as consummate and charismatic an under-actor as Gosling to keep us attuned to the idea of this man-of-action’s interiority. Aside from very “Titanic“-y embellishment of a certain bracelet (one for Neil DeGrasse Tyson to get annoyed about, perhaps?) and the slightly obvious decision to choose Armstrong’s young daughter’s death as the motivating tragedy of his psychology, there’s little overt humanizing here. Which is mostly a good choice, as it keeps us focused on the thrilling recreation of procedure rather than the manufacture of false sentiment, but it does mean that despite leaning heavily into the human cost of the space program, the film is not the emotive gut-punch that some might be expecting. And otherwise, it’s down to Chazelle and his regular behind-camera team to supply, through cinematic technique, the poetry that their stoic subject (except for one short, famous, blazing couplet) largely lacked.

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So on the one hand “First Man,” the first Chazelle feature he has not also written, can feel more anonymous than we might expect from the writer-director of “Whiplash” and “La La Land,” lacking the former’s show-offy technique and the latter’s candy-colored whimsy. But that also makes it feel grand and built-to-last, and from its opening moments (has it ever been more appropriate to go from Universal’s spinning globe to DreamWorks’ boy-in-the-moon?) to closing coda, this might be the purest proof yet that Chazelle is as versatile and “classic” a director as Hollywood has discovered recently. Marshaling career-best contributions from every department, it is for better and worse, Chazelle’s least personal film, while at the same time being his most bravura performance as a conductor of a cinematic orchestra. Or perhaps more appropriately, as pilot of the film’s craft, constantly making minute course-corrections to keep the whole bulky project moving levelly and swiftly before the eagle gently, skillfully, softly lands.

The absolute knockout performance, in fact, comes from DP Linus Sandgren, shooting in deliciously grainy 16mm and 35mm and, when we finally get to the moon, cracking open the widescreen glory of 70mm IMAX. Here the texture of film adds yet another level of antiqued authenticity to the fanatically detailed, fetishizably period-accurate production design, in which Sandgren, also an Oscar-winner for “La La Land,” seems to delight. He’s equally surehanded twisting sinuously around in the impossibly poky interior of the Command Module, bristling with analog dials, knobs and big flashing push-me alarm buttons, or using first-person POV to put us inside an explosion and a parachute ejection, or capturing sedate symmetries and frames-within-frames back on the ground. Often, in the domestic scenes, he’ll shoot from a darkened room through a bright doorway, which has the effect of marooning Neil in a pool of light that hovers in black space, even when he’s earthbound.

But it’s not just pretty pictures. Chazelle also reteams with his regular editor Tom Cross (again, an Oscar-winner for “Whiplash“) and together they control the tempo of the film with a musician’s exactitude, sometimes rushing, sometimes dragging but always for calculated effect. The opening scene, in which a 1961 test flight of Armstrong’s goes awry when he starts to bounce off the atmosphere rather than re-entering, is as exciting a setpiece as we’re likely to get this year, but part of the power of those jagged, shaky climaxes, with the excellent sound design also contributing to the sense of rattling, mechanical peril, is that they always build to an expansive moment of sudden, tremendous calm. And threading through it all, Justin Hurwitz‘s fine score moves elastically from plaintive harp motif to grandly booming symphony to (slightly clichéd) space-waltz, as the mood dictates. 

If there is a less impressive aspect, it’s the story, which suffers from having an outcome we all know and a rather cursory approach to the supporting characters, some of whom pop up and whizz by so briefly, you don’t realize until later that, say, Pablo Schreiber is playing Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks in Ron Howard‘s “Apollo 13“). The cast is excellent, though, and while Gosling deserves due credit for negotiating his own paradox — how to expressively communicate just what a private and guarded man Armstrong was — many of the others make an impression despite their truncated screen time. Jason Clarke as Edward Higgins White, Kyle Chandler as Director of Flight Operations Deke Slayton, and Corey Stoll as an asshole-ish Buzz Aldrin are all standouts, while Claire Foy as Jan Armstrong, fares a little better than the wives tend to in astronaut movies, but only a little.

But amid all the things that “First Man” is, it’s also notable for what it is not. There’s minimal flag-waving here, making it a universal story about tenacity and sacrifice, rather than anything more overtly patriotic. That’s a good thing, but it means that politics are dialed right back in general, with only some Vietnam War footage playing on background TV screens and one moment in which Gil Scott-Heron‘s “Whitey On The Moon” sounds out, making a particularly pointed comment on the social context of the era. But then Chazelle is as little interested in that context as he is in the spiritual or philosophical potential of this story (this is a tale of lunar exploration in which a journalist’s question about “feeling the presence of God” is played for a laugh).  Instead, through the minute recreation of a gloriously analog process, he examines the way destiny fingers its way back from posterity, hovers briefly over one man then another, before finally landing on this one guy, almost incidentally making him the hero of a mission that was, “First Man” tells us, so colossally unlikely to succeed that it borders on being its own, secular miracle. [B+]

Check out all our coverage from the 2018 Venice Film Festival here.