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Review: First Man (Damien Chazelle)

Ryan Gosling in First Man

The remarkable rendered utterly ordinary in Damien Chazelle's First Man, a biopic whose apparent approach toward nullifying the vapid, anonymous hagiographication is to lean so far into the anonymity as to nullify all viewer interest. Neil Armstrong may not have been an extraordinary human, but he undoubtedly achieved something extraordinary, and this is what First Man lacks entirely - extraordinariness, save for its most crucial sequence. Yes, the moon scenes here are quiet lovely, though themselves problematic, in that they last a mere fraction of the time it took to get there; if it was Chazelle's intention to emphasize the sheer volume of work required to plant human feet on Earth's only moon, he too rarely seems to care to make something meaningful out of depicting that work, and these two hours of toil on screen are toil before the screen too.

I'm not sure what went wrong with this movie - perhaps it counts as Chazelle's first attempt at this story, with his Apollo 11 success some years down the line, should anyone consider this endeavour worth the effort. Chazelle and writer Josh Singer spend a lot of that effort on forcibly inducing in the viewer's mind the question of whether or not NASA's space programme itself was worth the financial effort, and while their reluctance to draw a definitive conclusion is interesting, the blinkeredness of their portrayal of this debate cuts it short, way before it ever gets the chance to go long. This is First Man's greatest flaw - for such a momentous cultural event, it's terribly narrow in purview, hopping from year to year from the perspective of one rather dull individual. As American culture changed markedly in the 1960s, nothing much changes in this movie, least of all lead Ryan Gosling's pallid expression, and a connection between movie and viewer is established too late and too unconvincingly.

Is this a conscious attempt by Chazelle to scale back the artificial pomp of his previous features, to prove that he's a serious filmmaker worthy of the acclaim lavished upon him and capable of accomplishing something more 'artistic', likelier to win over his high-brow critics? First Man feels so unsuitably neutered that this may be the only explanation that makes sense to me, with scene after scene simply arriving, taking care of its business, then leaving, all in the most mundane manner. And yet there exist signs of life and energy, whether in ugly scenes of overt awards-baiting (domestic dramatics with shots held just long enough to make for uninterrupted nominations clips), or those of genuine excellence (the aforementioned moon sequence). In all, First Man has been disastrously misjudged, its abundant cinematic potential squandered in service of a banal portrait of ordinariness.

Image Credit: MovieStillsDB

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