The best thing about awards season is picking a favorite movie and rooting for it for five long months, to the point that my love for said film becomes less of an earnest passion and more of a wildly fun joke. Last year, that movie was Phantom Thread. This year, it will probably be Widows or A Star Is Born (despite the fact that I’ve seen neither). But the second best thing about awards season is picking a least favorite movie and dumping on it so hard for five long months, to the point that I condition myself into perceiving the movie not only as a piece of utter shit, but as my sworn enemy, the cultural artifact I hate most, my cinematic kryptonite. Last year, that movie was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This year, it will almost certainly be First Man.
Ah yes, First Man, a movie written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the guy who has made not one but two movies about heroically suffering male artists and the women who ultimately decide not to tolerate them. There was Whiplash—a movie I honestly don’t mind but have no desire to ever watch again—and La La Land, a movie that begins as an homage to classic musicals but quickly devolves (after a single number!) into a deranged vision of Hollywood (not to mention gender roles in cis heterosexual relationships) that would be comical if it weren’t diametrically opposed to the reality of the industry.
That Chazelle had such a rose-colored version of fame, the casting couch, and “the biz” in general is something we don’t talk about enough in my opinion (this is not his fault, per se, but something we should take into consideration when we talk about his speedy rise to success and critical acclaim), but now’s not the time. We’re talking about First Man! A big studio docudrama (biopic?) about Neil Armstrong, the first man who ever walked on the moon.
“First Man,” which is Chazelle’s first feature since “La La Land,” is a docudrama in the most authentic and exciting sense of the word. Chazelle knows that the story of the NASA space program has been told before (quite memorably, in its way, in “The Right Stuff”). So his audacious strategy is to make a movie so revelatory in its realism, so gritty in its physicality, that it becomes a drama of thrillingly hellbent danger and obsession.
And then there’s this:
The movie redefines what space travel is — the way it lives inside our imaginations — by capturing, for the first time, what the stakes really were.
Gosling gives a tricky, compelling performance that grows on you. He plays Armstrong as a brainy go-getter who has learned to hold most of what he feels inside (he wrote musicals in college, and is now ashamed of it)
I love that one in particular, because when is the last time Ryan Gosling didn’t play “a brainy go-getter who has learned to hold most of what he feels inside”? Isn’t that... precisely why he’s cast?
It’s like Hidden Figures took one small step for space movies, and then Damien Chazelle got all huffy after losing to Moonlight and was like, “I’m about to take a giant leap back to when we only cared about the dudes! Smell you later!” I cannot WAIT to spend $25 to see it in IMAX and boo when it ends. Award season is no fun if you don’t have a movie to root against, so thanks again, Damien! You’re really helping me out.