‘First Man’ — Preview
Charlie Kenney | Tuesday, September 19, 2017
There are two types of filmmakers in Hollywood: those who make non-fiction films and those who don’t.
Damien Chazelle was the latter, and was expected to be for the rest of his career based on the nature of his first three films — two musicals and one music-heavy film. That was until he announced the topic of his next film: one about the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong and his monumental mission to become the first man to walk on the moon.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that Chazelle has gone the route of nonfiction with his new film “First Man” — it’s a path that nearly every notable Hollywood director of the past 40 years has taken at least once in their careers. Spielberg departed from the “Jaws” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrrestrial’s” he became famous for to tackle non-fiction movies like “War Horse” and “Schindler’s List;” Scorsese left the “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” fictional, social commentaries to portray real, historical struggles in movies like “Gangs of New York” and “The Wolf of Wall Street;” and even science-fiction demi-god Ridley Scott left the “Blade Runner” and “Alien” films that made him famous to direct more prescient films like “American Gangster” and “Black Hawk Down.” It’s a trend that isn’t surprising for Chazelle to follow — very few Tarantino or Kubricks can exist in today’s dollar-based Hollywood — but the fault of Chazelle isn’t in him following the trend — it’s in how he is doing it.
All the directors who made the transition from fiction to non-fiction were storytellers — Chazelle is no exception. When they all made the jump, they looked to maintain their storytelling ability and liberty; they picked nonfiction topics that were unknown, yet interesting: a story of Jewish refugees being saved by a factory owner in World War II, the chronicling of Catholic-Protestant clashing in 1840’s New York City or the saga of the beginnings of the heroin industry in America after the Vietnam War. With Chazelle choosing to tell the story of Neil Armstrong — arguably one of the most recognizable names in the current American conscious — the story, in many ways, has already been told for him.
Nobody knew how “Schindler’s List” or “Gangs of New York” were going to end, because nobody had heard of the events or people in them. In Chazelle’s “First Man,” however, everyone will go into the theater knowing how it’s going to end: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin will set foot on the moon. In choosing to do this Chazelle has essentially chosen to be a different kind of director — one dedicated to solely directing, not to telling a story (not an captivating one at least).
Kathryn Bigelow, James Marsh and Oliver Stone are those kinds of directors and make those kinds of movies. They by no means lack directorial talent or artistic ability, but they lack in many ways the creativity to bring a world to life that doesn’t already exist. Chazelle on the other hand possesses that talent, and has done so three times already in his short but illustrious career. Coming from a filmmaker who has gone on record saying his favorite films are French musicals, “Casablanca” and “Chinatown,” it’s a move that doesn’t make much sense inspirationally, but probably makes a lot of sense financially.
In saying all of this, I am not asserting that the film will be a bad one. Chazelle is a brilliant director and story teller — arguably the best to emerge from the millennial generation thus far — and one who will do justice to whatever topic that he has to tackle. It might even be a film worthy of being placed side by side with the “Lincoln” and “Dunkirk”-esque movies that will be shown in history classes for years to come. What concerns me, however, is not the content or quality of the film Chazelle is set to release in 2018, but rather the precedent it will set for him.
Maybe “First Man” is just a detour for Chazelle to cash in on the Hollywood he has just gained acceptance to, but maybe it’s a permanent move. If it’s the latter, it’s something that anyone who watches and loves film should be sad about. In a world where the only surefire way to make money is releasing a film about someone in the Marvel universe, Chazelle found a way to make over $100 million at the box office with a musical — a genre considered outdated and dead. He’s a director and a brain that Hollywood desperately needs working somewhere other than nonfiction for the majority of his career.
Directorial minds like Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins rarely come around. They’re not minds we want to lose.