"First Man" Excerpt
Adam: Josh, we just came from an IMAX screening of Damien Chazelle's "First Man." And because of that, we're just going to cut right to the chase and really get to the question I can't wait to hear you weigh in on. Just a little bit of background first. The movie covers really a seven-to-eight year span in Neil Armstrong's life, from his time as an engineer and test pilot who was selected for NASA's Gemini and Apollo programs and ultimately becomes -- spoiler -- the first man to walk on the moon. When you think about Damien Chazelle's previous films, they're kinda loud movies. From his debut, the jazzy musical romance "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," which is filled with singing and dancing, to "Whiplash," where jazz is again the milieu, and Miles Teller plays an aggressive drum student taught by an even more aggressive instructor, to his last film which of course features more singing and dancing and jazz, "La La Land." There is no jazz in "First Man." There's scarcely any music and there's actually scarcely any talking, as Armstrong is a man of few words to begin with who turns more inward after the loss of his young daughter and whose job requires him to do a lot but say almost nothing - even when he's strapped into a rocket tightly next to one or two other people who, like him, are experiencing something few people, and in some cases, no other people in history have ever experienced! I'm curious how you think Chazelle acquits himself here with all that quiet.
Josh: Well, I would say maybe it's noisy in different ways. One thing that struck me about all of the spaceflight sequences is how chaotic they were visually -- mostly a lot of shaky cam here, and almost to the point where some of the images take on an abstract feel to them, where things begin to blur together. And obviously this is putting us in the astronauts' point of view, but it's very intense. More so than most of the astronaut films I can think of. Noise is a big part of that. There's a roar that comes with this. The opening sequence, where Armstrong is taking a test flight just outside of the Earth's atmosphere, what's most striking about that -- and this ties to your point -- is how we get that roar, and that rush and the clatter. I mean you feel like this thing's going to fall apart. And then he breaks through and suddenly there's silence once he gets out of the atmosphere. That's a really striking moment and a very exciting sequence and it's mirrored with the very final sequence of the landing on the moon, where there's a lot of chaos until that landing, until the door opens and they step out, and we can talk about the other visual elements that come into play there too, but there's silence, as well, when we finally meet the expanse of the moon's surface. So yeah, that's a technique that I think is used effectively in "First man." He is working with Justin Hurwitz again, the composer who has been involved in all of his films, and I would say you know the distinction that he adds here is ... He is using a theremin some cases, so we get this almost '60s cheesy space motif. It's very gentle. It's just in the background. It's not like, you know, the sci-fi stuff we're thinking of when we hear the word theremin. But it's there! You sense it. I don't know how I feel about that yet. At other moments the score is really heavy when they're approaching the moon and very momentous-feeling. That is part of the audio chaos as well, in a way. I'm still thinking my way through this score mostly because of the way music is so integral in all his other films, but I think you're right to point out that there are distinct moments of silence that I did find very effective, and I think Gosling's performance as part of that works too. I mean, one of the things he can do well is stoicism. I feel like he can withhold a lot while still letting us in enough. And in their vision of Neil Armstrong, that's crucial, and I think he does it well.
Adam: I agree he does it well. One thing that did strike me about the score -- and I think this ties in is some other aspects of the film we may end up discussing -- it's never triumphant though. For me it's not. I know you said it gets more momentous, it gets louder, it gets bigger, especially as they're approaching the moon, but it doesn't have that kind of "Apollo 13," or even "The Right Stuff," [thing] where it's about trying to really make you feel something as a viewer, whether it's pride or inspired. I never felt like it was trying to push any of those emotions onto us. And again, I feel like that ultimately reflects the hero at the core of this and the person who Neil Armstrong is, at least according to this portrait. Putting it in that perspective, thinking about it in relation to other Chazelle films, you can see why he might be drawn to someone like Armstrong because, similar to Miles Teller's character in "Whiplash," and to Gosling, again, as Seb in "La La Land," they're all kind of obsessive men who have a quest and who have some integrity. And there is something that they're trying to attain or aspire to that is greater than themselves, that they have to push themselves to get to. But there is at least one key difference, and I think this gets back to this notion of quiet and saying-versus-doing; we always know what Seb wants. We know what he's after in "La La Land." We know what Miles Teller's character is after in "Whiplash." They're open books. They're people who are proclaiming through both their words their actions exactly what they're after, and it's the complete opposite here. We have in Gosling's Armstrong a character who really is only about action and is almost physically unable to actually express himself to the outside world. Now, where it's similar to those films... I do feel like it's as much about movement and about precision and sound, in some ways, as those more musically inclined films, whether it's the camera twirling with these characters in space, the shakiness that we get in a lot of scenes, putting us right there in the capsule or the cockpit with these men, and even the way we are watching those characters under that duress know what their moves are -- know what the steps are. I do feel like there is some connection there especially as we get into some of those sequences like the extended Moon sequence, where there isn't much of this being said at all. But there is a lot of grace in terms of the movement of the characters and of the space capsules themselves.