First Man is out soon. Get your tickets here!
There’s a scene in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in which a young couple sit down to dinner together. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) haven’t seen each other in weeks and they are obviously ecstatic to be together again, and yet… as soon as they realize the precarious nature of their future together, the mood quickly changes to one of despair.
Sebastian, who has been the biggest champion of Mia’s career, becomes defensive and angry when she tells him she has to work and can’t go to Boise, Idaho with him. What’s significant about Ryan Gosling’s transformation in this scene isn’t that it’s obvious, because it’s not. It’s that it’s completely believable.
Gosling has a penchant for playing the everyman character, the one with whom audiences can identify because he appears so average. Gosling’s career has been full of these roles, from the troubled school teacher in Half Nelson to The Place Beyond The Pines’ motorcycle stuntman Luke Glanton, a petty criminal who dies halfway through the film but whose presence looms large until the end. In Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling is Lars Lindstrom, a man so socially awkward that he purchases a sex doll to be his girlfriend. Despite the potentially uncomfortable subject matter, Gosling manages to humanize Lars and viewers are then given permission to feel less ashamed of their own peccadillos.
In the action comedy The Nice Guys, Gosling is private investigator Holland March, a character who both upholds and subverts the hardboiled noir detective trope. While March is both down on his luck and an alcoholic, Gosling doesn’t portray him as a tortured soul, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe character or even the broken, debauched men who inhabit James Ellroy’s literary universe. He’s more hapless than hopeless, thus epitomizing the film’s title. (His casting is made even more intriguing by the fact that his private investigator cohort is played by Russell Crowe, who played Wendell White in the film adaptation of Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential.)
Perhaps Gosling’s most well-known everyman role thus far is in Drive. Despite being the main character in the film, he is not given a name and speaks little dialogue. The film invites viewers to speculate on the nature of The Driver’s persona, as Gosling does not depict him as either hero or villain. His backstory is never revealed and the audience knows as much about him as his neighbor and love interest, Irene (Carey Mulligan), which is to say, nearly nothing. Even his death is elided; much like Luke Glanton, he can continue to live on in our memories forever. The Driver becomes a tabula rasa upon whom the audience can project their fantasies.
Blade Runner 2049 is an ideal film for Gosling. Here he is K, a replicant and a police officer with the LAPD and like Rick Deckard before him, he is tasked with retiring other replicants. Gosling fills K with the lack of affect that is supposed to characterize replicants. When K suspects that his memories might be real - that he might be “woman born” - his emotions are erratic and exaggerated. It’s almost as if K is acting the way he thinks a human should act.
This is similar to Sebastian’s character arc in La La Land. He’s a failed jazz pianist who seeks to venerate the past and because of this, he stops himself from moving forward. When he does embrace the future, he is essentially playing the role that he thinks Mia wants him to play. It doesn’t bring him fulfillment; rather, he becomes sullen and resentful. The ending of the film, in which an alternate future plays out before him, is almost like the memories that are implanted in K in Blade Runner 2049.
Damien Chazelle’s latest film, First Man, presents a unique outlet for Ryan Gosling’s acting history. It is based on the biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong and depicts the buildup to the Apollo 11 Moon mission in 1969. It’s the first time that Gosling has played a real life person, so the dichotomy between “everyman” and “First Man” is something that will likely inform not only his acting, but also audience expectations.
Yet, consider the reputation of the original Blade Runner and the expectations placed upon its sequel. Gosling had the added burden of inhabiting a role that is synonymous with someone else’s career, in that case, Harrison Ford. Despite underperforming at the box office, Blade Runner 2049 was nominated for five Academy Awards and eight BAFTA awards. Thus, it’s not a stretch to say that Ryan Gosling, despite his abilities at playing the “Average Joe,” also frequently transcends the character and makes the everyman into something much more. For example, look how incredibly popular The Driver jacket became after Drive’s release.
The full-length trailer for First Man gives away remarkably little, despite being two and a half minutes long. Part of this is due to skillful editing, but there is much to be said about the enigmatic smile Gosling shows throughout the trailer. It’s like he knows a secret and is teasing the audience. There is a lot going on behind that smile, but the trailer only shows enough to tempt viewers into wanting more. Regardless of how unsure one may feel about the subject matter of the film, it’s hard to deny that First Man has enormous potential, and a huge part of that is due to casting Ryan Gosling as a beloved icon.