Damien Chazelle

First Man

24/10/18

Q: Who was Neil Armstrong?

A: The first man to walk on the moon.

Q: Yes, but who was Neil Armstrong?

This is the question that informs Damien Chazelle’s intriguing and surprisingly intimate biopic of the astronaut who took ‘a giant step for mankind.’ It’s an attempt to reveal the true nature of one of the most famous men in history. It’s also a curiously thankless task because, as portrayed by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is an enigma, a man so tightly buttoned-up that he is unable to reveal his true self, even to his wife, Janet (Claire Foy).

We first encounter him in 1961, when he is a test pilot for the infamous X-15 rocket-powered plane, putting himself in danger on an almost daily basis without complaint or, indeed, comment. It is the same year that his infant daughter Karen dies as a result of a brain tumour, something that affects him deeply for the rest of his life and that prompts him to enlist in the fledgling space programme – as though, in order to hide from his own grief, he needs to get as far away from his home planet as possible. Gosling is terrific in the central role, expertly conveying a taciturn hero, whose inner turmoil rages like an inferno behind a perpetually blank expression.

First Man also offers us alarming glimpses into early space missions, which seem to consist of men strapping themselves into oversized biscuit tins, crossing their fingers and blasting off into the stratosphere. It demonstrates how arduous it was, how downright dangerous. As Janet observes at one point, the team of ‘experts’ behind the space missions have no real idea of what they’re doing, they are just ‘boys building balsa wood models.’ But the all-pervading desire to beat the Russians to the moon leads them to cast caution to the wind. This is amply conveyed by the tragedy of the 1967 Apollo Mission test that results in the deaths of three astronauts. It’s brilliantly underplayed, a single thread of smoke escaping from a sealed hatch demonstrating how the awful details of such incidents are always kept securely locked away from the public gaze.

This is a nuts and bolts depiction of the events leading up to one of mankind’s most memorable achievements and it tells me more about those events than I’ve ever heard before. It’s only in the climactic sequence – the moon landing itself – where the film is finally allowed to slip into the realms of grandeur, the endless grey vistas of the lunar landscape brilliantly recreated. It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that the mission is successful – but, once back on earth and with Neil in quarantine, he and his wife are  still on opposite sides of a glass wall – this time literally.

So no change there.

Chazelle’s film is certainly on the long side, weighing in at two hours and twenty one minutes (ironically, exactly the same length as the last film we saw, Bad Times at the El Royale) and it might have benefited from a tighter pace, but it manages to keep me hooked throughout. And the next time somebody asks me the question, ‘Who was Neil Armstrong?’ I’ll be able to give a much more detailed reply.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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La La Land

08/01/17

Remember movie musicals? You know, the big sweeping MGM-style pictures, the kind they really don’t make any more? Well, clearly nobody told director Damien Chazelle, because, apart from a few subtle nods to the modern age, that’s pretty much what he gives us here. Apparently this is a long-cherished project for him, one that predates Whiplash, the picture that first propelled him into the public eye. Essentially, La La Land is a great big glittering love letter to LA and the creative industries that serve it.

The opening sequence pretty much sets out Chazelle’s stall. There’s a freeway full of gridlocked traffic. A girl in  a car begins to sing a song. She gets out of the car and dances a few steps and then the guy in the next car steps out and joins her. Pretty soon, hundreds of people are following their example, offering a brilliantly choreographed routine that is as audacious as it is delightful. It’s a wonderful start.

Soon we meet our protagonists and wouldn’t you know it, at first they hate each other on sight. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a musician, a jazz obsessive who dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Emma Stone) is a would-be actress, a barista by day, who slogs hopefully through an endless series of auditions for roles she appears to have no real chance of attaining. After their initial conflict, the two start to strike sparks off each other. And before too long, of course, they’re hoofing up a storm and singing most of their dialogue.

And if there’s a bit of this film that isn’t fully realised, it’s the songs. Don’t get me wrong, the jazz-inflected score is strong, yes, but the so-called big numbers aren’t exactly memorable. It says a lot when the tune you come out humming is the Flock of Seagulls song, that’s only there as an example of ‘bad pop’ by the cover band in which Sebastian is forced to play in order to pay his rent. And while you might be able to recall one of the film’s original melodies, chances are that the lyrics will escape you. But look, that seems an almost churlish observation in the midst of so much invention, so much undoubted chutzpah.The cinematography is ravishing and the film simply bristles with invention.

There are echoes here of some of the great movie musicals: A Star Is Born, An American in Paris… and then there are other scenes that are refreshingly original. Stone is particularly good, especially in an early scene where she auditions for a character receiving bad news over the phone and you feel like shouting at the casting directors who aren’t taking enough notice of her!

Of course, these kind of movies traditionally have a happy ending and I have to applaud Chazelle for resisting that temptation, even if the alternative he offers may be a cleverly devised way of him having his cake and eating it.

But what a cake! Delicious, delightful and ultimately satisfying. If you miss those old-time musicals, this one is undoubtedly for you.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney