“Three features in, Damien Chazelle has emerged as one of our most exciting and accomplished filmmakers,” Christopher Nolan writes in a tribute post to the Oscar-winning director as part of Variety’s Directors on Directors series. Last year it was Chazelle who was praising Nolan for “Dunkirk,” calling the World War II thriller a “giant middle finger” to anyone who thinks movies don’t take risks anymore, but in 2018 it was Nolan’s turn to heap praise on Chazelle.
“His take on Neil Armstrong’s voyage was never going to be a middle-of-the-road affair,” Nolan writes about “First Man.” “Instead he crafted a masterfully staged re-creation of the space program with utterly compelling physical detail and layers of cinematic immersion that command credence and ensure that the radical and intensively subjective nature of Chazelle’s point-of-view comes as a gradually unveiled shock.”
Nolan even weighed in on the film’s much-discussed depiction of the American flag on the surface of the moon. While the flag is seen, Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer opted not to include an individual scene that shows the physical action of the flag being planted. Controversy erupted over this directorial choice before “First Man” was even released, but Nolan dismissed the backlash as missing Chazelle’s important point.
“By equating our most intimate human moments with the great adventure, the film doesn’t diminish the cosmic, it elevates the earthly,” Nolan writes. “Discussions about the film’s portrayal of the flag on the moon largely missed the point: the choice was not about forms of patriotism, it was about a filmmaker presuming to leap over the collective sense of this great event to land on a genuine understanding of what stepping onto the farthest point of mankind’s reach might have actually felt like to the individual who did it.”
Nolan praised Chazelle for “[daring] to make an introverted film about the most extroverted moment in the history of the world.” The “Dunkirk” director concluded, “‘First Man’s’ true significance, not unlike the momentous events which it dares to interpret, may not come into focus for some time.”
“First Man” has had a rough awards season despite being an early favorite in the Oscar race. The film earned critical acclaim but struggled at the U.S. box office and has missed out on major nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild. In Nolan’s eyes, time will treat “First Man” well as more people come around and realize what a staggering accomplishment Chazelle made.
“First Man” is now playing in theaters. Read Nolan’s full tribute to Chazelle and the movie here.