Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.
What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.
Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.
I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.
As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.
First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.
Nate;s Grade: B-
I understand that the year 2016 has been, charitably put, unkind to many people and why we all could use a little escapism around this time of year. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a big Oscar splash with 2014’s Whiplash to make his passion project, a sincere musical that recreates the style of classic Hollywood. La La Land is a stylistic throwback that has enchanted critics and seems destined to compete for some of the biggest awards this season. Just imagine how much better it would be if it was great.
Chazelle and company certainly knows how to make an impression. The opening number transforms an L.A. traffic jam into a full-blown song-and-dance explosion, with commuters exiting their cars and coalescing into a teaming mass of jubilation on the freeway. It’s a moment that is sincere and full of energy and promise. The brightly colored commuters come together in long unbroken shots with a widescreen camera that dives and dips and leaves plenty of space for the audience to appreciate the dancing. This is a movie that wants you to see all of the rainbow-colored performers while they strut their stuff. It’s here that we’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), a part-time barista and struggling wannabe actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club at a historic site. These two dreamers resist each other but of course destiny has another plan. A highlight is a flirty sequence set atop a Hollywood Hillside overlooking the purplish dawn. Mia and Sebastian sing how beautiful this scenic view would be if only they were with someone they loved, playfully antagonizing the other into a dancer’s rivalry. The dancing is mischievous and fun and performed in wide angles to soak in the movements. It’s easy to get caught up in Chazelle’s early swell, a transporting experience that extols the virtues of classical musicals by the likes of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle fills out his frame like a painter. There’s an infectious love for Old Hollywood that tries to alchemize its influences into something new and old, and for a good while Chazelle is able to maintain this fizzy, effervescent experience and remind you of the soothing joys of a good movie musical told with finesse and brio.
Then after about forty-five minutes the fizz gets a little staler and that’s when I felt the gnawing emptiness underneath all the Old Hollywood homage. It reminded me of 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, as a movie that is more affectionate imitation than genuine substance. As I wrote in my review for The Artist: “The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here.” It’s all mimicry of the highest order but Chazelle hasn’t put enough authentic feeling into his imitation. There’s a fealty to the sources of his inspiration that Chazelle is replicating, and his screen pops with coded visual reminders (look, it’s Gosling leaning off a street lamp), but it fetishizes the inspirations rather than building from them. Quentin Tarantino is transparent about his outré influences but he doesn’t forget to tell an engaging story too. It’s in the movie’s dispiriting second half that it becomes all too clear just how little substance there is to our lovers as well as the industry satire. This is miles away from Singin’ in the Rain, folks (my favorite film musical, for the record) and more the same old broadsides about the industry: they’re shallow, they’re inconsiderate, they swallow up the dreamers, they “worship everything and value nothing,” as Sebastian put it. It’s not like the movie is telling you anything you haven’t heard before, and that’s fine but it limits any impact. It also seems to exist in a universe where minorities are mere background players to prop up the dazzling lives of the beautiful white leads. Imagine the enjoyment if some of that snappy industry satire was reserved for its less progressive casting practices. Can you imagine this kind of movie starring Tessa Thompson (Creed)?
Affection can only go so far because eventually the gravity of your characters, their relationship, their goals and dreams and relatability will need to kick in, and it doesn’t. I think this is because the first forty-five minutes are the typical rom-com story of the boy getting the girl. It’s the portion where the movie weaves its old Hollywood spell and courts us too, and it’s fun. And like bad relationships, once it has you La La Land feels like it has to do less work. Chazelle has to manufacture a series of pity problems (more below) to push his lovers apart and question whether these two star-crossed kids might make it after all. If the beginning half is the swirling romance that reverently celebrates old Hollywood, the second half is the attempt to “ground” the film in a sense of realism. It feels too late tonally to switch gears and it undercuts the first half. It might sound contradictory but if La La Land was just going to be a trifle then I wish it went all-in rather than half-heartedly trying an “edge” of harsh reality to mix the sour with the sweet. Just because the movie sets up the dreams of its characters, puts them together, and says not so fast doesn’t mean that Chazelle has properly set up this nascent melancholy.
Mia and Sebastian are not particularly strong characters. The unified star power of the lead actors is enough to disguise this fact for a majority of the movie and maybe for some the entirety. They don’t have anything of import to say beyond their dreams and their jobs that are presently in the way of achieving said dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything else about these characters. For Mia and Sebastian, the world is divided into those who are pure and those who are impure, the real artists and the phonies, and the dichotomy will rankle anyone who has interacted with more than their share of hipster. Sebastian is a music snob who wants to impress upon the world the importance of jazz even as it shrugs indifferently. Nobody gets it, man. He’ll fight the good fight no matter what because Sebastian’s fight is Chazelle’s: taking outdated material and exporting value to a new generation. The characters serve the plot and exist to entwine and then be dutifully pulled apart. It’s hard to invest in the characters when they won’t show who they are and why they should be together. Maybe that’s the point ultimately, a rich meta commentary on how attenuated the central courtships in movies themselves are, or the fleeting relationship between film and audience, or maybe I’m just hoofing as hard as the leads to insert more meaning here.
The second half paddles into what my friend Ben Bailey affectionately termed White People Problems: The Musical. I won’t fully concur but the conflicts are too forced and the characters become whiney. Sebastian rejoins a pop band where he doesn’t feel 100 percent creatively fulfilled because he isn’t performing “true jazz.” The band is also popular and this causes friction because he has “sold out” on his dream, as if toiling during for any period of time is giving up. I guess you must be single-minded or it doesn’t count. Their combined egos won’t allow for different variations of success. La La Land pretends to endorse the dreamers but does it really? The only dreamers who seem to count are Mia and Sebastian. What happened to Mia’s lively group of roommates and friends from the beginning party? What about the nebbish screenwriter the movie mocks for an easy laugh? There are no significant supporting characters in this movie; the universe belongs to Mia and Sebastian. They’re not as insufferable as the characters from Rent but it’s definitely a detriment. Look at the characters in Fame, a group of hungry teenagers who came from all walks of life and circumstances to try and achieve their titular dream of stardom.
The limitations of its doe-eyed leads present some issues. Stone (Birdman) is smashing in the movie but part of that is because, aside from some song-and-dance choreography, the movie asks very little of her other than to be cute, a trait Stone has in natural abundance. There are two standout scenes for the actress. The first is an audition where she pretends to be a mistress getting the “sorry, I can’t do this” phone call from the man she thought had loved her. The sheer variety of emotions that Stone is so able to quickly convey on her face, in her tremulous eyes, and posture are remarkable. Of course the problem is that she’s too objectively good to keep getting blithely rejected by cold-hearted casting agents. The second is a musical showcase where Stone belts out a story about how her aunt inspired her to be a thespian. Stone is effortlessly captivating but she deserves better than to be foil to a grumbly Gosling. I feel that Gosling is one of those actors who can be amazingly talented when plugged into the right role and with the right director (see: Half Nelson, The Believer, The Big Short). He has an easygoing charm that all-too easily morphs into smarm without the right guidance or motivation on his part. Sebastian feels like a scowling grump who wants to bludgeon the world with his point of view. It feels more like he’s in it for submission. Gosling’s performance left me wanting someone else to play his part. They were so strong on screen in Crazy, Stupid, Love but that sizzling chemistry of old is gone here. They feel inert together, amplified by Gosling’s antiseptic performance. They’re both rather limited singers, very thin of voice, and that does hurt a musical. The songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exceptionally milquetoast. They’re all slight renditions on the same blandly pleasant tune. They evaporated from my memory by the time the end credits started rolling. Moana has nothing to fear come Oscar time from these at-best competent compositions.
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Chazelle’s anodyne musical is brimming with appreciation and adoration for the world of classic Hollywood, and that alone will be effectively transporting for many film critics and select audiences bred on a diet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. La La Land is an airy confection but one that dissipates all too easily after viewing thanks to the limited characters, the limited singing, the limited dancing, the limited songs, and the lack of overall substance independent from imitation. It has its lovely moments and Stone is an ingénue worth loving, though not as much her slim character, a dreamer who dreams the dreams of a dreamer. The breezy and bubbly first half doesn’t really mesh with the second half. I think it’s telling that Mia and Sebastian’s “love theme” is a sad plaintive piano trinkle. As the characters get more sullen and sour, the fizzy fun fades away and it starts to feel like a New Year’s Eve hangover that left you addled and warm but only in a vaguely ephemeral sense. If it leaves you toe tapping and giddy, I’m glad. I’m already mentally prepared for it to practically sweep the Oscars, as they do love celebrating their own importance. La La Land is a movie musical that is stuck looking backward that it loses its own footing.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Writer/director Damien Chazelle (Grand Piano) made quite a deal of noise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Whiplash, winning the top honors. Usually, the movies examine the angelic teachers, the ones we all remember fondly that broke through to us and cared enough to make a difference. This is not that movie.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a second-year student at a prestigious New York City music conservatory. He drums and dreams of being plucked from his class to the jazz band of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a renowned jazz musician with a volatile temper. He verbally berates his students, antagonizes them, belittles them, throws chairs at them, brings them to tears, and harasses them, but all in the guise of pushing their talents, pushing them out of being so easily coddled by their parents and an “everyone’s a winner” society. Andrew is elated to be asked to be Fletcher’s newest drummer but the pressure to perform, and maintain that level of perfection, eats away at him. Andrew eats, sleeps, and obsesses over being the greatest drummer possible, a pupil in Fletcher’s image.
I know very little about music beyond a simple “I like this/I don’t like that” delineation, but I was enthralled from beginning to end with the sheer intensity of Whiplash. Even though the film is something of a cinematic crucible, a hellish musical boot camp, a Full Metal Jacket for Julliard, it’s not caught up in the half notes and technical elements; this is a movie about two powerful forces coming into direct conflict. It’s a battle of wills, a struggle for dominance, and a character study about the potential drive it takes to be considered one of the living legends. The emphasis is on the characters completely, and the movie never drags (or rushes) with its cleanly arranged plot points as it reaches its thrilling conclusion, a final act that completely takes the experience to another level. It keeps switching gears and defying our expectations in the best way. Chazelle always seems to be one step ahead of his audience. We know that Andrew is going to alienate his girlfriend (Glee’s Melissa Benoist), thus causing acrimony and resentment on both sides, leading to a breakup hinging upon some question of priorities. We suspect it’s coming and lie patiently in wait, dreading that this predictable subplot will take away the focus of the film. And then Chazelle has Andrew sit down and break up with his girlfriend right then and there, citing the exact same chain of foreseeable cause and effect. Andrew sees where this story will head and wants to prevent further heartbreak. He nips this relationship in the bud, and his girlfriend is simply stunned at his blunt assessment (“You think I would prevent you from being great?”). It was at this point I knew Chazelle was going to deliver something not just special but downright masterful.
At the start it looks like the film is going to be a student-mentor study, and it does become this, though in a fascinating yet psychologically disturbing manner. The fiery and all-consuming passion of Fletcher infects Andrew, as he wants to be great above all else, including meaningful human relationships. He’s always been something of a loner who has difficulty keeping friends, made all the more evident by his uncomfortable and snippy Thanksgiving dinner with his family. His ambition is to be the best and he’s willing to sacrifice everything else. This paves the way for a character study of obsession, as we watch Andrew become a slave to his ambition, to the drive to always be better. He drums until his hands are calloused and soaked in blood. He gets a mattress in a rehearsal space, spending all of his free time on his obsession. He’s also battling for validation from Fletcher, whose approval will make Andrew feel like all those blood, sweat, and tears were worth it. The film raises some very intriguing and open-ended questions over the self-destructive nature of ambition. In one perspective it’s a story of perseverance and utilizing every setback, every humbling humiliation to push oneself further then what was possibly known. On the other hand, it’s about a young man who struggles for the unforgiving tough love of an abusive father figure who molds him in his image. Chazelle’s explosive finale also sticks with the ambiguity. It is no doubt an ascendant moment for Andrew but the implications are left for you to interpret on your own.
Primarily the story of two forces of nature, both Teller and Simmons, especially, give captivating performances that will blow you away. Simmons (TV’s The Closer) has been one of our best character actors for years on TV and film, but man does he just sink his teeth completely into his ferocious character. He’s truly terrifying to watch but you can’t take your eyes off him. Like the other characters, as soon as he enters a room you’re put on edge, wondering what he might say next, what might lead to the next tantrum of frustration and rage. Simmons is remarkable but especially in the way that he imbues his character with traces of sympathy (also thanked by Chazelle’s screenplay, naturally). Fletcher subscribes to the (arguably insane) philosophy that he has to constantly push his students or else they will persist on mediocrity. There is a method to his madness; he’s desperately looking for the next Charlie Parker, a legend in his midst that he can help mold thanks to his aggressive teaching techniques. He truly believes the ends justify the means and he is doing the world a favor. Likewise, Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) is awestruck by his professor’s rep but then desperate to regain that hallowed approval. Their relationship becomes poisonous and antagonistic and Andrew seems to be exhausting himself simply to prove Fletcher wrong. Teller is one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood and his commitment to the character and his physical endurance is impeccable. It cannot be understated how thrilling it is to watch Teller pound away on those drums, especially during the finale where the energy level might just exhaust the audience as well (you do feel spent afterwards, in a good way). Part of Teller’s performance has to be with his style and precision of drumming throughout, and it’s amazing that he is able to convey different emotional states through a musical instrument. Teller is an effortlessly intuitive actor and his instincts are rarely wrong.
Shot in only 19 days, Whiplash is a rare film that feels blisteringly vibrant, coursing with an insatiable energy, powered by performances of intense dedication and with a script packed with bubbling conflict. It’s a small movie that manages to knock you off your feet, from the caliber of the performances to the caliber of the musicianship. I didn’t know if this movie could live up to the hype post-Sundance, and I was a little apprehensive at first, but I fell completely under the sway of Chazelle and his storytelling. The smooth edits, the clean connect-the-dots plot points, the room for ambiguity and nuance, the stellar final act, it’s everything a movie lover could ask for while still never forgetting to entertain. This is a powerful movie that packs many a wallop but also raises interesting ethical questions about the drive for accomplishment, whether personal attachments are hindrances, and chiefly whether the ends justify the means, especially if those ends could be considered cruel and abusive. Whatever the ends may be, see this incredible film, which just happens to be one of the finest of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A