‘First Man’ is Damien Chazelle’s anti-‘Whiplash’

This February I had the privilege of attending a Q&A with First Man director Damien Chazelle. Chazelle’s previous three features, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Whiplash, and La La Land are all about music and musicians, so I asked him how the process of making a biopic about Neil Armstrong had been different.

“I’ve definitely heard my fair share of, ‘So when’s Neil Armstrong going to tap dance?’” Chazelle joked. “Unfortunately, I’ll have to disappoint on that level...But I think [First Man] deals with similar questions to Whiplash, the kind of questions of what you’re willing to do in service of a goal, and whether it’s worth it.”

This answer signaled to me that First Man would fall in line with Chazelle’s other movies: Armstrong may not be a musician, but his journey to the moon is still ample fodder for a story about unbridled ambition. When I saw a review from a favorite critic of mine declaring First ManWhiplash in Space,” my expectation of the film was all but solidified heading into the theater.

So I was happy to find that First Man is a significant departure for Chazelle. It’s both much bigger and much more intimate than any of his previous films. It’s also a subtle act of misdirection. Chazelle’s quote is true, but not in the way I expected it to be.

First Man is narratively similar to Whiplash. Both movies tell the story of a solitary man completely devoted to his goals in an insulated world. We rarely stray far from Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) expressionless face, which does a lot of heavy lifting in First Man. Both films also depict heroes who, in their pursuit of these goals, shut out any obstacles or distractions in their lives. In First Man, this means Armstrong must deal with the loss of fellow astronauts and suffer through self-inflicted alienation from his family (Claire Foy, playing Armstrong’s wife Janet, is given little more to do than listen to the spacecraft radio transmissions from her kitchen).

But First Man is not a movie about ambition. In fact, the Neil Armstrong that Chazelle presents hardly seems able to comprehend the topic of personal glory. At a press conference before the moon mission, a reporter asks Armstrong if he was excited when he discovered he’d be leading the historic mission. “I was pleased,” Armstrong says, looking not pleased at all. Fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) interjects, talking about how proud he is to be a part of history.

In another scene, Armstrong gets irritated with his superiors for marketing NASA on the cover of Life magazine. He wants no part of that publicity. In Whiplash, Andrew (Miles Teller) says that he “wants to be one of the greats.” In First Man, there is no analogous speech. We never get any indication Armstrong wants to be remembered; in fact, we hardly get any indication about what he’s thinking at all.

That changes once Armstrong arrives on the moon. He finally reaches this pinnacle of human achievement, one that has come at great personal cost. But reaching his goal yields a contrasting reaction to Andrew’s in Whiplash. The finale of Whiplash is an exhilarating drum solo which culminates in a look of splendor on Andrew’s face that suggests despite all the pain he endured, capturing greatness was worth it. But the arrival on the moon in First Man is a near opposite moment: Armstrong’s mission was not a triumphant pursuit toward a goal, but an outlet to run from something else.

In its final act, First Man becomes a film not about ambition, but about coping with grief. A crushing final scene between Armstrong and his wife reinforces this idea that the film’s true focus is what has been left unsaid. Chazelle is a master at ending movies: the finales of Whiplash and La La Land are both among my five favorite scenes this decade. The ending of First Man, too, is excellent, but distinct from Chazelle’s previous works. Whiplash and La La Land go out with a bang: they’re gaudy and triumphant, and you know instantly what they mean for the characters. First Man ends much more quietly, and with more ambiguity. It’s a moment that lingers.

It’s a good thing the ending is so good, because the film is slow to get there. Chazelle’s previous movies have been brisk. If J.K. Simmons’s ruthless band instructor from Whiplash were to watch these movies, he might say Chazelle’s previous films were rushing and First Man is dragging. The movie plods along for much of its two hour and twenty-one minute runtime. Part of the problem is the difficulty of making a biopic like this suspenseful; we know Armstrong lands on the moon safely.

The film also feels slow because Gosling’s face betrays no emotion. I think it’s an intentional move by Chazelle: making Armstrong a silent, stoic figure masks his motivations and allows for the misdirection about the film’s true interests. But at times, it also makes Armstrong’s character simply uninteresting to watch. It’s a testament to Gosling’s screen presence that Armstrong is still a compelling character.

And while I appreciated Chazelle’s willingness to depart from his previous movies, First Man struggles without some of his favorite tools. Most notable is the lack of music. For a grandiose biopic about an American icon, First Man is not rousing Americana; it’s one of the quietest big movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if there’s ever been a more muted portrayal of civil unrest in 1968, and there is no cheering for Armstrong’s classic ‘one small step’ line. This silence adds a real emotional gravitas to some moments, particularly the moon landing.

But in other moments, the silence translates into blandness. Some of the best scenes in First Man come when Chazelle does use music: a mission gone wrong employs Psycho-like screeches to heighten the tension, for example, and a dance between Armstrong and his wife to a song called “Lunar Rhapsody” recalls the intimacy of a duet between Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land, right down to the luminous aquamarine curtains. In one potentially self-aware moment, Aldrin asks the other astronauts as they silently hurtle towards the moon if anyone brought music.

Chazelle also takes a different approach with the camera in First Man. The camerawork and pacing in Whiplash and La La Land are precise, and every detail in their closing sequences are deliberate. First Man is an intentionally messier movie, and the camera shakes and swerves like the space ships that Armstrong pilots. Chazelle is an unmistakable perfectionist, though, and the rawness of that style felt a bit forced, as if someone had told Yo-Yo Ma to just wing it. The result is more unpolished, but you can tell a virtuoso is still behind it.

I was mildly positive on First Man after leaving the theater, but it’s a film that continues to grow in my estimation as I think about it more. Part of my hesitation to fully embrace it, I think, came from my expectations entering the screening: I was evaluating First Man as a movie about ambition, and then it became something else. It’s a movie I’m excited to revisit, because there’s so much else Chazelle is touching on: the definition of heroism, the fallacy of American exceptionalism, the simultaneous celebration and dismissal of individual achievement. Chazelle was right to say First Man is a movie about the cost of pursuing one’s goals. But in another bit of misdirection, he left out that First Man is so much more.

First Man: 3.5 stars