NEW YORK — Damien Chazelle's last movie, "La La Land," was about a man clinging to nostalgia. His new one, "First Man," doesn't merely flirt with the past. It throttles back in time.
But Chazelle's reason for revisiting NASA's 1969 mission to the moon isn't to polish the shining legend of Neil Armstrong. It's to jolt our collective memory of it — to rip it out of the history books and plunge us back into the harsh, anxious reality of what at the time was far from a fait accompli.
"Our generation grows up in a world where people have walked on the moon and you see the photos. They're all kind of glossy and burnished and we think of this idealized past and there's a sort of pure nostalgia that comes with that," Chazelle, the 33-year-old director, said in an interview. "But the more I dug into the research the more fascinating it was to find out, A, just out hard it was to pull this off, and B, how unlikely it was, how close to failure."
"It was a much more complicated thing than I think today we tend to remember it as," he adds. "I think that's because we have the benefit of living in the aftermath of the success."
"First Man" debuted this week at the Venice Film Festival where it was promptly hailed a groundbreaking space movie for its visceral, boots-on-the-ground recreation of the high-stakes mission. Variety said it does for the space movie what "Saving Private Ryan" did for the war movie.
The response reconfirms Chazelle's status as a filmmaking wunderkind who is likely to again have a movie in the center of Oscar season, two years after he so memorably and chaotically exited the 2017 Academy Awards. In "First Man," Chazelle has seamlessly stepped up to a bigger budget studio film (the Universal Pictures production cost $70 million to make) and returned to the early awards season prediction lists.
But while Chazelle acknowledges he has some trepidation about reentering the Oscar season fray, he says his Academy Awards experience (Chazelle's "Whiplash" was also nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, and won three) in some ways didn't live up to his aggrandized view of the prestigious ceremony.
"They never feel as big as in your mind maybe built them up to be as a kid or leading up to them," he says. "There are so many of these awards shows that by the time you get to the last one, you've kind of been through some iteration of the pattern. You can feel a little like 'Groundhog Day' with the same events repeated over and over, with slight alterations."
Or, ahem, some big alternations. In the year and half following The Flub, Chazelle stayed out of the public eye almost entirely, giving one interview the morning after the Oscars but otherwise plunging himself into work on "First Man." ''Which I guess was good for my sanity," he says. Chazelle also got engaged to actress Olivia Hamilton.
Even as "La La Land" was becoming such a think piece-generating sensation (it grossed $446 million wide), Chazelle was prepping "First Man," and working on the script with Josh Singer ("Spotlight"). His initial meeting with Gosling was for the part of Armstrong before the actor ultimately joined "La La Land," too.
For Chazelle, there are also other ties between the two films.
"There were two connections that immediately grabbed me: how we engage with the past and how the past is a lot more complicated than how nostalgia would have you believe," says Chazelle. "And the other thing was what a certain goal — and that goal can be being an artist, being a drummer or, in this case, landing on the moon — the what of the goal is irrelevant to the general question of what that goal does to you and to the people around you."
"Even though this movie's not about an artist trying to make a work an art the way my previous two films," he adds, "it still felt it could exist in a similar terrain."