Damien Chazelle crafts a precise and personal look at the first man on the moon
Every year there are films thought likely to garner acclaim and awards. Every year, some of those films seem to fall by the wayside, failing to connect with critics or audiences alike. First Man is one of those in our current cinematic cycle that is frankly being underappreciated. Some speculate it was hindered by the ridiculous notion of it not showing enough American flags, but the reality might be in its approach. It’s a more contemplative and personal look at the race to land a man on the moon, an event typically viewed with more grandeur and inspirational qualities. New on home video this week, it’s the perfect time to catch-up on one of the most well crafted films of 2018.
Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen and from visionary filmmaker Damien Chazelle, FIRST MAN is the riveting story behind the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, the film explores the triumphs and the cost — on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself — of one of the most dangerous missions in history.
August 20th, 1969. Millions around the globe were tuned in to see man set foot on the moon for the first time. A landmark moment in American and human history, it’s often celebrated and used as an inspiration: the science, the drive, the risk, that valiant planting of the flag, not to mention beating those pesky evil Russians too. First Man comes at events with an altogether different tack, embracing the humanity that drove events, reframing that famous journey into something far more intimate, exploring the qualities Neil Armstrong and others brought to the program as scientists, engineers, pilots, fathers, and more.
From the opening, the aspect that defines and drives Armstrong is highlighted by the loss of his young daughter to cancer. Guilt and grief exacerbated his ongoing experiences with loss, while serving as a test pilot and later in the film’s depiction of the space program. A stoic man, strong and silent, these qualities were shared by his colleagues too. Emblematic of the era, it’s the baby boomer view of what masculinity is. It builds into the tragedy of his story as isolating himself from his emotions; through his work, he also puts distance between himself and his wife Janet (Claire Foy). Suffering from the same grief, she is charged with supporting her husband, raising their son, and waiting. Waiting in fear of a call or TV news story about a failed test flight, mission, or launch claiming her husband’s life. Gosling’s brooding and internalized delivery feels loaded and apt, while Foy is immense, giving the film a much needed emotional heart, opening up much of the emotional undercurrents. This relationship, their internal struggles, and determination do much to define these historical characters as well as drive the famous Apollo program onward.
It’s not all drama and brooding. The film is imbued with moments of intensity, with director Damien Chezelle putting you right in the faces of these men, or in the cockpits in which they sit. You feel the rattles and shakes as breathtaking scenes depicting test flights or the first walk on the moon itself unfold. There are illuminating moments of wonder, but Chazelle never fails to sketch that thin line between life and death. There is a precision and craft that is remarkable to his direction, aided by impeccable production values, stunning cinematography from Linus Sandgren, and a score from Justin Hurwitz that feels remarkably entwined with the film.
Writer Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Fifth Estate, and The Post along with Liz Hannah) delivers an informed script that draws heavily on the well researched Armstrong biography from James R. Hansen. It’s in this research that the film takes on a different vibe from most biopics, or the traditional glorified view of events. Armstrong is portrayed here not as a gung-ho buccaneer, but as a man, warts and all. An event oft wielded as a symbol of superiority and excellence has some of the sheen removed, giving it a new level of authenticity. It takes nothing away from the act of landing on the moon, it just celebrates it in another way, by making this achievement all the more human, putting pathos over mythos.
The First Man Blu-ray offers up a rich image, one that represents the aesthetic of the era well. A vintage feel without sacrificing any levels of detail or depth. Colors are natural but strongly rendered, blacks are also very well presented, obviously of importance for a number of sequences in the film. Overall, an impressive transfer.
- Feature Commentary with Director Damien Chazelle, Screenwriter Josh Singer and Editor Tom Cross
- Deleted Scenes
- Shooting for the Moon — Take an intimate look at the production of FIRST MAN and the collaborative relationship between Director Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling.
- Preparing to Launch — It’s difficult to believe that FIRST MAN is the first major feature film to tell the journey to Apollo 11. Hear from Director Damien Chazelle and his cast why now is the time to tell the story of this historic event.
- Giant Leap in One Small Step — A heroic character study, FIRST MAN sheds light on all the hard working individuals that got us to the moon and back.
- Mission Gone Wrong — Watch as Ryan Gosling reenacts a test piloting sequence gone terribly wrong. Go behind the scenes to see how he trained to nail the landing, performing the majority of his own stunts.
- Putting You In the Seat — Through the use of innovative technology, most of FIRST MAN was shot in-camera. Take an in-depth look behind the lens of this epic film.
- Recreating the Moon Landing — Filmed in IMAX to show the vastness of the moon, find out all that it took to recreate the most famous moment in NASA history.
- Shooting at NASA — Hear from Ryan Gosling and Director Damien Chazelle on how shooting at NASA brought unparalleled authenticity to FIRST MAN.
- Astronaut Training — Go behind the scenes of the three day boot camp each of the actors underwent prior to filming FIRST MAN.
As you can see, the release is pretty stuffed with extra content. The audio commentary highlights plenty of the efforts of the production team to capture the details of the era and setting. It also delivers more technical insights relating to pacing and editing, and the efforts to remain true, or use directly, real events or lines of dialogue true to history. The deleted scenes are pretty interesting, showing the fire on Apollo 1 and the launch of Apollo 8, but you get the sense the film has more impact and better flow with their excision. All the featurettes are pretty short and lack real depth, but they add up to about an hour of content. Overall they all add to the appreciation for what the film achieves.
The Bottom Line
First Man foregoes much of the bombastic grandeur you’d expect from such a topic, for something altogether more poignant and affecting. An impeccably crafted, and intimate biopic, one that depicts the intensity of one of the most iconic pursuits in American history, but more importantly the true humanity behind it.
First Man is available on Blu-ray from January 22nd, 2019.