You’d be forgiven for thinking that Damien Chazelle’s newest film, First Man, is something of a radical departure for the Oscar winning director of La La Land and Whiplash. Since his first student film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, the focus of Chazelle’s filmography as a director has been firmly rooted in the world of music, specifically jazz. The cacophonous sound of a studio jazz band is the driving force behind Whiplash, the intense story of a drummer’s pursuit of greatness, inspired in-part by Chazelle’s own experience as a drummer in college. Meanwhile, La La Land channelled the spirit of classic musicals in a modern setting, winning Chazelle his first Oscar at only 32 years-old. However, watching First Man, Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, it is clear that a different thread ties together Chazelle’s entire oeuvre: Sacrifice. Across each of his films, Chazelle has shown the sacrifices one must make in order to achieve their goals, and the stakes have never been higher than in his newest offering.
At the height of the space race, a catastrophic failed training exercise thrusts engineer-turned-astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) into the spotlight and into the cockpit of a lunar module bound for the moon. With all the astronauts who preceded him either dead or injured, Armstrong must weigh-up the risks of going where no man has gone before with the reward of achieving what so many thought impossible. Armstrong is willing to sacrifice his life for his country, willing to leave his wife and children behind to ensure that his friends did not die in vain. In true Chazelle fashion, he succeeds and the screen fades to black. The audience never learns about Armstrong’s life after the mission, about his reclusiveness from the media or his divorce from his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Chazelle’s stories all begin with a character who wants something and ends with them getting it, but at what cost?
No moment captures the idea of sacrifice clearer than in Whiplash when Andrew (Miles Teller) breaks up with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he knows that drumming will get in the way of their relationship. Throughout Whiplash, the audience gets to see the physical and mental toll the quest for greatness has on the prodigious drummer, but this scene shows how callous the quest has made him. At the start of the film, Andrew is nervous to ask Nicole out; she’s prettier than he is and far less awkward. Andrew sacrifices the part that is open to love and intimacy, and in the film’s final crescendo it almost seems worth it. As he crashes the stage and goes against his tyrannical mentor Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons), leading the band to one of the grandest finales of modern cinema, Andrew and Fletcher share a knowing glance and the screen cuts to black. Andrew finally gets the approval from his teacher that he has craved for the entire film, all it cost him was his sanity, his loved ones and a few broken bones.
The singular, unwavering vision of Chazelle’s protagonists binds his films thematically, but First Man in particular explores this in a unique way. Not only does Chazelle focus on the personal sacrifices Armstrong makes throughout his journey, but also the sacrifices Nasa and the USA make in order to put a man on the moon. The USA truly feels like the secondary protagonist in First Man, despite the recent controversy over Chazelle’s decision to omit the famous flag planting from the film may lead you to believe. At the height of the Cold War, the US was desperate to beat the soviets to the moon, willing to sacrifice the life of their astronauts and billions of dollars to get there. Chazelle is also not afraid to show the public backlash the mission received, going as far as to show its intersection with the civil rights movement set to the sound of ‘Whitey on the Moon’.
Look at any of the marketing material for First Man and you’ll see huge images of Ryan Gosling’s face radiating the orange and blue light of so many other science fiction film posters, with words like “blockbuster” and “epic” printed across them. There is little mention that this film is from the Academy Award winning director of La La Land, and on a surface level, Chazelle’s love letter to the musicals of the 50s and 60s does not have a great deal in common with First Man. La La Land has a much lighter subject matter, focusing around the romance between Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) as they try to balance their new relationship with their dreams of success. But First Man is not the ‘epic blockbuster’ the posters want you to believe it is; it’s a visceral, melancholic look at the price of achieving the impossible, just as La La Land isn’t simply a glossy musical where the characters live happily ever after.
The ending of La La Land took a lot of people by surprise; Mia, now married to another man, sees Seb perform in his jazz club. As the couple lock eyes one last time, the dream-like relationship they could have had plays out, allowing the audience to see what Seb and Mia sacrificed to realise their goals. First Man also ends with a look, this time between Neil Armstrong and his wife as they are reunited on earth. A thick glass screen stands between Neil and Janet as Nasa monitor the astronaut for potential diseases, symbolic of the rift that grew between them prior to Neil’s departure and his icy detachment from the potential consequences of a failed mission. With First Man, Damien Chazelle constructed a film that at once feels grand and intimate; the audience gets to experience what the moon landing meant to both the USA and Neil Armstrong simultaneously and somehow, Armstrong’s personal journey feels like the one with the highest stakes. Whether it’s drumming or sending a man into space, Damien Chazelle is the master of making intimate stories feel larger-than-life and at such a young age, his best work is surely still to come.
First Man is out now.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Clarke @_ethanmc