I don’t understand embargoes at a film festival. I mean, I’ll respect them. I just don’t see the point. When a big movie opens on thousands of screens, you see why they don’t want reviews till a certain point. If the reviews are overwhelmingly negative, it could impact ticket sales – so on, so forth. But at a festival where there are, at most, a few thousand attendees, the embargo makes little difference. Whether an insta-opinion is tweeted out seconds after a press show or a full-on review is published only after the first public screening has begun (which is how Venice wants it), it still means that only the people at that public screening get to watch the film without knowing what the critics thought. When the reviews get out, the minute after the public screening begins, the whole world knows.
Take the new Damien Chazelle film, First Man. The press screening was on Wednesday morning, and the public screening occurred that evening. It’s just a few hours’ difference, and the film is still exposed for what it is, weeks or months before it hits a theatre near you. So again, how do embargoes at a film festival help? Unless, major distribution deals are being struck right after the press screening, and they don’t want negative reports coming in the way. Even then, the distributor surely has a sense from the screening. (Contrary to the popular image of critics being well-behaved note-takers glaring at anyone who whips out a smartphone, the boos for a bad movie can change, in a second, the mood inside the theatre.) What am I missing?
The film, though, is awesome. I am usually very wary of biopics, which follow the same beats, chronicling the same phases of doubts and madness, and ending with a triumph that silences the sceptics. But Josh Singer’s script – based on First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, by James R Hansen – is smart, incisive, remarkably pared-to-the bone and wary of easy epiphanies, and Damien Chazelle (whose Whiplash I loved, but whose La La Land I thought was overrated) is on song. If nothing else, First Man is proof of what happens when a great filmmaker works with great material. No offence to the feel-goody (and much-loved) Apollo 13, but First Man makes Ron Howard’s film look like what Hollywood would do with such a story. This, on the other hand, is how we feel it really happened.
Chazelle isn’t after the traditional dramatic beats of this genre: the slow-building grand obsession, or the scenes that set up scientific lingo so we’ll understand what’s coming a few scenes later, or the press conference where a snarky journalist is silenced by a stirring speech about the importance of it all. Even in the stretches that prickle with the marital strain between Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and Janet (a marvellously brittle Claire Foy, who looks like she might explode any minute under the strain) aren’t door-slamming explosions. At one point, the door is gently (but firmly) shut, and that’s because Janet wants Neil to talk to his sons about his mission, one from which he may not return. Chazelle is not awed by the triumphalist material – and what could be more rah-rah than man setting foot on the moon? He works in a minor key, because the fears are very real. Because no one knows anything for sure. Because, as Neil puts it, we learnt to fly only 60 years ago. Because, as Janet puts it, the NASA folks are just a “bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood.” They can theorise all they want, but it’s her husband who’s taking the practical exams.
Remember the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, towards the end, where the protagonist has to perform a test where he places a foot into the void before him? First Man shows us what that leap of faith must have felt like. Chazelle lays out the circumstances without overemphasizing them. The very normal suburbia where the Armstrongs live, with stay-at-home wives watching their children splash around in pools. The concern that all these test missions are draining taxpayer dollars with no real results. (“Why do we need space exploration?” is a question no one yet has a satisfactory answer for.) The early technology, where the rockets look like rust buckets and there isn’t even a computer-aided view of what’s coming up in the space outside the shuttle — it’s only whatever is glimpsed through a window. In an age of anything-can-be-shown with special effects, Chazelle opts to show practically nothing that’s… special. If spectacle is what you’re after, First Man isn’t your movie.
First Man, thus, draws us not just into the cockpit, beside Neil Armstrong, but also into his mind, inside him. The film is put together with a cinéma vérité feel.
Instead of merely seeing, we experience it all. Chazelle and his collaborators, especially the top-notch sound team, make us hear (and fear about) every creak and groan. When the metal making up the spacecraft expands under heat, it sounds as though the gates of hell are yawning open. Likewise, when a child dies, we hear every tiny squeak from the machinery lowering the coffin into the ground. These sounds — as opposed to dramatic, dialogue-heavy scenes — instill in us a sense of the psychology of the characters. We feel what they must have felt: the sadness of leaving families behind, or the terror of impending death on a mission no one has attempted before. At least with Tenzing and Hillary, the hardships notwithstanding, it was still earth.
First Man, thus, draws us not just into the cockpit, beside Neil Armstrong, but also into his mind, inside him. The film is put together with a cinéma vérité feel. (The editor is Tom Cross.) The scenes aren’t rounded with neat segues. They come with jagged edges that become jigsaw bits that we gradually put together. The emotion is accumulative, and Ryan Gosling does something difficult: he plays the exteriority of a man who gradually becomes closed unto himself. At first, the scenes with Neil and Janet come with signs of affection: a kiss, a small dance, a hand being held, his body draped over hers in bed. They are fully clothed. They aren’t making love. They are drawing strength from each other. In many frames, we see his wedding ring. But as the mission approaches, Neil withdraws. Neil barely smiles. Every phone call he receives about a dead pilot isn’t just bad news that a colleague is gone but a reminder that this could be him in a few months. Or is it something else? A sentimental scene at the end hints that the trip to the moon was the sort of catharsis the Sandra Bullock character got in Gravity (outer space, apparently, is a terrific therapist). It’s the closest we get to him, but it still doesn’t soften him.
Every department is sensationally in sync. Linus Sandgren’s jittery cinematography expands on the themes of tension and claustrophobia. It’s not just the cramped quarters of the cockpit. The actors are constantly hemmed in by walls and corridors. Even the faces are shot from real close — we seem to see not just the pores on skin but the molecules on those pores. And Justin Hurwitz delivers one of the great movie scores. (Among today’s filmmakers, Chazelle’s ear for music is truly unique.) The “one step for man” line is greeted with pin-drop silence. There’s not a hint of celebration, or even achievement. Elsewhere, the cues are odd, eerie, unusual and marvellously effective. Taking off from Kubrick’s use of classical music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we get stretches that sound like Chopin’s nocturnes. We get something that sounds like a theremin. And when it’s time to rouse the audience, we get a riff that loops and builds on itself, like Trevor Jones’s theme from The Last of the Mohicans. Chazelle pushes every department of filmmaking in a way he’s never done in his young career. I never thought a great-man biopic could be made interesting again, but Chazelle does more. He makes it fresh again.