Damien Chazelle has made three major films now that have embedded themselves into American culture. Chazelle is the only American born director to win Best Director since 2009 — and what that says is that he has, in a short time, blown the roof off the joint in a way only non-American born directors have been able to do in recent years. How has he done it? It’s partly because he’s a director who takes risks. He does this visually — he thinks in images, which all great directors do — but he also makes his films come alive with the rhythm of a musician, specifically a jazz musician. Other directors do this, especially those who have their roots in music like Chazelle does (Fincher, Scorsese, Spike Lee) so that each pulse of the movie, each edit, how the sequences rise and fall, slow and speed up is tied to the same through-line that harmonizes sight, sound, rhythm. These things come together and build until there is that moment where he literally takes your breath away. All three of his films have that moment — Whiplash, La La Land and now, First Man. I don’t get, from the reviews I’ve been reading so far, that many people who cover film got this or fully appreciate it. But over time, this thing Chazelle does specifically will be studied and remembered, as he will be remembered, as one of the best directors around.
Reading this week’s reactions to First Man, I have to admit feeling some disappointment in critics whose work I usually admire not seeing the movie I saw. Perhaps this is because when I saw it, on the heels of Venice, word on the street was that it was “underwhelming.” If there ever was a word besides “overrated” that should be forever banished from film criticism it’s that. Whenever I hear that word it reminds me of the famous Rilke quote, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.” This idea that your own expectations should shape your experience of a film is, I think, the wrong way to both watch movies and write about movies.
I’ve seen a few films this year I loved for different reasons. The first half of A Star is Born is some of the most thrilling filmmaking of the year. Roma is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and for its entirety I watched it unable to believe anyone could bring an entire world of the past to life like that. I will watch and rewatch Green Book because I probably haven’t experienced that much joy at the movies in years. BlackKklansman took me places I didn’t think I would go and delivered an ending that has stayed with me all of these months later. There are many more I have yet to see (Beale Street, Widows, Vice) but of those I have seen these ones stand apart as the best from a filmmaking perspective.
Nothing I have seen so far this year has come even close to First Man, both as a movie unto itself and as the third movie in which Chazelle’s signature becomes increasingly clear. I do not feel, even with the score of 90 on Rotten Tomatoes, that he is getting the kind of praise he deserves. I suspect this will be born out over time. How do people not stand in awe of those scenes in the tiny cone of the Apollo space capsule? The marriage of music and visuals as we see Earth from space? And the casual way he takes us into the the claustrophobic lunar module moments before the intrepid astronauts made history.
Chazelle also shows how difficult it was to fund the Apollo missions, how the streets of America were in neglect and no one felt these trips were necessary. “Whitey on the moon” is a song that plays to illustrate the juxtaposition of the government’s inability to address complaints from the black community. Remember, this was in the middle of the Vietnam War. This was 1969, a year after the nationwide turmoil of ’68. After the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinations, the riots, the election of Nixon. This was right in the thick of the most turbulent time in modern American history. The Apollo 11 mission was one shiny bright spot. It didn’t fix poverty. It couldn’t stop the war. But if its mission was “to complete a national goal set by President John F. Kennedy on May 25, 1961: perform a crewed lunar landing and return to Earth,” then that can and should be a proud achievement for any Americans who lived through that era.
Maybe now is not the right time for First Man. Maybe not enough people remember or care about Neil Armstrong anymore. For its lack of a shot of the flag-planting ritual, Marco Rubio tried to make it a movie that is ashamed of America, as if. It made me feel proud to be an American living in a country that has produced both a Neil Armstrong and a Damien Chazelle. It’s a movie that never forgets about the people he cared about, and cared about him, on the ground — and a movie that highlights all of the things a trip to the moon couldn’t do anything about — like his own child dying of brain cancer at the age of two, like the racial divide, like hundreds of thousands being carpet bombed in Vietnam.
But the moon landing was a symbol of mankind’s determination, a fulfillment of a vision of a dead president, a promise made and a promise kept. Neil Armstrong made a point of reminding people that the Apollo mission wasn’t meant to show America’s might, to intimate other countries with the shock and awe of technology, space flight and war. Rather, it was a celebration of the best thing that humans can do — use their intelligence to discover ways to reach out into the universe, a celebration of a commitment to science.
Can First Man win Best Picture? Perhaps not. You can put your hot takes on ice, Oscar watchers. And in a way, thank god for that. If I have to hear one more person say “tech awards only” I’m going to lose my mind. I know we can have better conversations than that. We’ll make a deal. I’ll say A Star is Born could sweep and you can have a conversation with me about First Man that has nothing to do with the Oscars.
Every year there is usually at least one movie that reminds me why I love movies. This movie is that movie. Even watching the clips back I think, man, I have to go see it again. And then again. And again after that. I know that Oscar movies must be movies for everybody. I also know that First Man isn’t a movie for everybody. But for those space geeks and cinema geeks out there, it is a movie for us. Go see First Man. Ignore the noise and go see for yourself. I get why people are drawn to movies that deliver the kind of emotional swoon they all need right now. First Man isn’t that movie. But from a filmmaking perspective, from an artistic perspective, wow. Just wow.