There is plenty to celebrate about Damien Chazelle‘s astoundingly beautiful fourth feature, First Man. The Ryan Gosling starrer essentially yanks the filmmaker out of his directorial comfort zone after three films about jazz music. And as if that wasn’t a big enough challenge, there’s also that the added pressure of covering a particularly revered legacy as part of its plot: the Moon landing.
Nevertheless, Chazelle’s latest perfectly blends the perspectival intensities of Whiplash with the quiet ache of La La Land. The audience is encouraged to enter the mind of Gosling’s steely Neil Armstrong and observe his largely-silent, calculated persona on screen. Yet, First Man isn’t impersonal in the slightest. It remains recognizably Chazelle as it is rooted in realistic subjectivities and feelings that mar, complicate, or otherwise accompany life-changing events of a flawed protagonist.
First Man works because of a collective technical mastery in front of and behind the camera. Gosling’s loaded performance (along with those by Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, and more) is gorgeously rendered by cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Moreover, Justin Hurwitz has basically composed the best score of his career for this movie; it’s evocative and chilling in all the right ways.
An extremely vital component to First Man also involves the editing prowess of Tom Cross. Although he has been cutting Chazelle’s movies since the days of Whiplash, the level of emotional and literal turbulence found in their third collaboration encouraged him to tackle the film very differently. After all, this is where the intricate balance of the film’s many formats — 16mm, 35mm and IMAX 70mm film — converge into a unique and logical whole.
An interview with Deadline breaks down Cross’ process of figuring out a fresh, if messier, mode of storytelling that his and Chazelle’s prior team-ups were not yet totally familiar with. In First Man‘s chase for the perfect emotional pitch, an interactive, chameleonic chaos existed while the film was being pieced together. All aspects of the movie’s post-production — from the visuals to the sound — were concurrently crafted. Cross was “within shouting distance” of the sound and effects departments, which helped mold the vision together coherently.
Nevertheless, first and foremost, the vision itself had to be bright and clear. According to Cross, Chazelle aimed for cinema vérité right away. He wanted to move away from any archetypal notions of a traditionally epic space movie, extending beyond the “almost antiseptic” scenes found in futuristic sci-fi and instead opting for grit. He tells Deadline:
“[Chazelle] wanted to go for something that he hadn’t seen before, which was a much more personal approach, as if you were a fly on the wall in the Armstrong house, and in these space capsules.”
The overall documentary style of filmmaking was an aesthetic decision from First Man‘s pre-production stages, with Cross observing documentaries such as Salesman by Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, and Primary by Robert Drew. In the editing room itself, choosing Sandgren’s rehearsal footage over precisely scripted scenes gave First Man some of its most intimate scenes, adding a noticeable layer of authenticity to the proceedings. With this process, Cross concedes that he and Chazelle “did a lot more rewriting in the editing room than we did with both [Whiplash and La La Land].”
Although a self-proclaimed skeptic when it comes to the found footage format and other shaky cam methods, Cross found himself warming to the organic storytelling possibilities found in Sandgren’s shots, highlighting that the fluid potential of cinema vérité rids scenes of general farce:
“‘Normal issues’ about continuity, and eye lines, and matching, all of that stuff really does take more of a back seat to something that is much more emotional.”
Still, could there have come a point where such a reliance on perspective becomes, in itself, gimmicky? Cross believes that First Man avoided this by acknowledging when to pull back from the movie’s disarray in order to introduce more measured points-of-view. As a result, the ideal marriage of style and story comes from deciding exactly what Gosling as Armstrong is observing or feeling in any given scene.
Cross speaks specifically about the crucial Gemini VIII mission sequence that had to pretty much crisscross filmmaking concerns seamlessly in order to work. The setup teeters between triumph and distinct danger for all characters involved, and that had to all be effectively delivered in a visually intense but engaging way.
Beginning by simulating the claustrophobic spacecraft which Armstrong and pilot David Scott (Christopher Abbott) occupy, Gemini VIII then docks with an unmanned target vehicle. Set against a lilting waltz by Hurwitz, this moment “was supposed to be more of a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey.” To then catapult audiences into a disturbing torrent of overwhelming action soon after, intercut with equally stressful scenes back on Earth, creates an impeccable impression of high-stakes tension. As Cross explains:
“I really love that section because I feel like it’s a good representation of a lot of the different styles and emotions that you have in the entire movie.”
And he is right on the money there. Cross cohesively stitches Chazelle’s enormous ambition together into an exhilarating yet poignant portrait. First Man succeeds in positioning its subject — warts and all — alongside the grandiose spectacle of an optimistic space exploration narrative. That negotiation between those two concerns would have made a lesser film lose its footing. Rather, it allows the iconic event of the moon landing to be captured and interpreted through an experimental fresh lens.