- Review by Kaya Savas- October 16, 2018
Damien Chazelle and Justin Hurwitz exploded onto the scene with Whiplash, and they followed it up with the amazing La La Land. The two college roommates have definitely taken that step of riding each other’s coattails to some huge success, and deservingly so. Altogether, Justin and Damien have done 4 films, their only 4 films. While Justin has dabbled in writing, including penning some scripts for The Simpsons, The League and even story credit on a few Curb Your Enthusiasm episodes from last year. Either way, the two have proven how extremely talented they are, and the most surprising thing about all of it is not how quickly they became successful, but how young they both are. Both Damien and Justin are just 33-years old, with Damien edging out Justin by being 3 days older. It might be the one thing that potentially shows some cracks in their work, and something we can’t hold against them too much. These guys are still learning. First Man definitely feels like a film and score from two people whose inexperience shows some missteps, but it’s not enough to ruin the story at all. First Man is good, both film and score, but it lacks the maturity and experience that more skilled filmmakers could have brought to the table.
Now, I’m just a tad younger than these two Oscar-winners. At 31, I have not written, directed or have completed a feature film of any kind. I have worked at film studios and in production for 7 years now, but it hasn’t escaped me that these two have accomplished amazing feats in their careers compared to anyone else. Hell, Spielberg was 28 when he directed Jaws, but let’s not dwell on that too much or I’ll get depressed.
Now, even though I am near their age, and have not demonstrated any filmmaking capabilities better than theirs, I do still see some cracks in First Man as an observer. First Man is a good film, its well-made and well-acted, but in the end delivers a rather bland story with a rather bland protagonist. Ryan Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong with the same emotional depth as his character from Drive, and the way Chazelle decided to shoot the film only hindered the emotional charge of the story. While shooting on 16mm was a cool choice and great aesthetic, the handheld camera and extreme close-ups actually pulled me out of the film. Then Justin’s score comes in.
Justin scored the film at two extremes, music that is very intimate and personal and music that bashes you over the head with intensity. The only problem is, the movie is neither intimate nor intense. If you take the music away from the picture, there’s a lot to like here. There’s two core melodies to the film, one for Armstrong and one for just the focus of the mission. And you can tell they were written by someone with a melodic mind. The score is minimal, focusing on simple looping melodies which make it a dream to edit to. But there is no flow or progression, and that comes from the film. We don’t feel momentum driving towards the inevitable moon landing. The only real emotion comes from Armstrong’s loss of his baby daughter at the start of the film and Claire Foy's charged performance. They plant the seeds to suggest that this loss will be a huge part of the character and story, but it’s sort of abandoned till the very end, so it loses any impact.
The score has one big shining moment, and that’s the lunar landing. The track “The Landing” is a wonderfully constructed piece with a very potent build that truly sucks you in. Many people have noted that it sounds similar to Dougie MacLean’s “The Gael”, which is now famous after Trevor Jones used it in his score for The Last Of The Mohicans. There’s also some talk about it sounding like Powell’s United 93, which is more of a stretch. “The Gael” observation is a bit harder to ignore, but it’s a very simple melody that is perfect for the foundation of a long build. Both Damien and Justin said there was no temp, but it doesn’t mean Justin wasn’t influenced elsewhere or it could be simply his melodic mind finding the same workable pattern as Dougie MacLean. But who cares about what it sounds like, does it work for the most pivotal scene? Sure, it works. But if you see the film, that landing goes very according to plan. Not much happens visually onscreen, and there is zero tension. So when Hurwitz’s track erupts into this huge build, it’s juxtaposed against a scene of a very safe landing that goes according to plan. While it works to add this momentous wonder, the payoff seems a bit underwhelming.
The score also uses a theremin, and both Damien and Justin described it as a way to bring Armstrong’s personality into the score. Armstrong was a huge fan of the album Music Out of the Moon: Music Unusual Featuring the Theremin - Themes by Harry Revel. Armstrong actually played a cassette of the album on Apollo 11 as it journeyed back to Earth. However, no matter how subtle and hauntingly beautiful you try and make the theremin, it’s hard to shake its association with cheesy sci-fi. Elfman used it to great effect in Mars Attacks, but other than that, it’s hard to pull off. It’s a bold choice, but it should have been kept as diegetic in this case and left out of the score. Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong already felt kind of like an emotionless alien, so the theremin hurt more than it helped.
In the end, this is a good film and score with a lot of cracks showing. First Man’s overall sound design is the most impressive part of the film, and while Hurwitz’s score works well it has a hard time bonding to many elements of the film. A lot of the ideas that Chazelle had as a director and Hurwitz had as a composer are quite brilliant on paper, but the execution stumbles especially with a 2-hour and 21-minute runtime. Hurwitz having a 90-piece orchestra mixed in with Moog synths and theremin all work for the most part, but the overall journey we go on is choppy and a bit unrewarding. I won’t compare First Man to Interstellar because I think that’s an unfair comparison, but this seems like a movie that Chazelle and Hurwitz should have made 10-15 years from now. While the cracks show up more after you've digested the experience, it's still an impressive and generally effective effort in score and filmmaking as a whole.