“First Man” (2018) 

Drama

Running Time: 141 minutes

Written by: Josh Singer

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

Featuring: Ryan Gosling,  Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas

Neil Armstrong: I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things. That maybe we should have seen a long time ago. But just haven’t been able to until now.”

Critical Commentary:

This week sees the release onto DVD/Blu-ray and 4K of what was considered to be one of the heavy hitters in this seasons award race especially considering the people that were involved both in from of, as well as behind the camera. Unfortunately because of poor box office as well as underwhelming reviews it has missed out on any major Oscar nominations. With the re-teaming of star, Ryan Gosling and director, Damien Chazelle from the six time Oscar winning triumph that was the box office and critical hit “La La Land” (2016), expectations were high that “First Man”, with more of a traditional movie from a major studio would have a bigger impact on all fronts than their previous effort. While this new movie is a huge technical achievement that uses a variety of techniques to achieve something special that rivals other true life films about the space race of the 1960s such as “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Apollo 13” (1995) it seems to be a rather cold piece of film-making that has at its core a reluctant protagonist that never seems to set out to be a hero which means the heart of this film is not what would be considered sympathetic. However for those willing to go with this movie, and invest their time, it will not only be rewarding but also reveal events on a personal level that led to the first man walking on the moon. The movie covers a period of the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong as well as his family, leading up to the legendary space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the Moon on July 20, 1969.

“First Man” has been directed by Damien Chazelle who after wining the Oscar for best director, the youngest to do so, could have chosen anything as his next project, as it happens this film was already green lit before his historic win. As it happens this movie marks many firsts for the director, it is his first studio movie, it is the first movie he has not written and it is the first that does not use music as a major motif. To be fair Chazelle does an excellent job at balancing many elements especially the music as well as the CGI, which reach a crescendo when it comes to the Moon landing which is nothing less than spectacular. Where the film does encounter issues is where the human drama intersects all the other elements that audiences have come to expect in the training of the Astronauts and all that encompasses. It may have been better to either take more of Armstrong’s life before he became a test pilot as well as where his origins lay, as I found much of this story to be heavily reminiscent of “The Right Stuff” but less engaging as the juxtaposition that movie used as well as the practical effects to be unsurpassed. “First Man” is obviously a biographical drama, it has been adapted by Josh Singer, based heavily on the book ‘First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong’ by James Hansen. Singer has over the past few years been involved as well as writing some very good true life stories made into excellent movies, such as “The Post” (2017), “Spotlight” (2015) and numerous episodes of “The West Wing” (1999-2006) here to writes a somewhat formulaic script that never reaches the heights of those other films, in fact when a story is so well known it can be a challenge to add anything new. However there is a part of the Armstrong’s life that had gone without any real public knowledge, that was the loss of their daughter to cancer, and their recovery, this plays a large part within this narrative and seeks to explain much of not only Neil Armstrong’s passion but his wife’s as well. These are the kind of story beats this movie needed more of, then it would have had a chance to stand apart from the crowd. 

There is no doubt that the star of “First Man” is Ryan Gosling who really does treat the man he is playing with upmost respect as well as humility. That may be the exact problem with the performance in that there does not seem to be any depth presented onscreen, it is all business with little portrayed emotion, which I do not believe Armstrong would have been. It almost seems like Gosling is playing the man as a blank slate, so much so that he comes off as a void where the audience is supposed to do the work, deciding on what kind of man he was but there should have been more, especially as a man who was a representative of the entire human race. This element of the film should have been more tightly controlled by director, Damien Chazelle, who in the past has had some very good performances out of actors, two come to mind in the Oscar winning performances by J.K. Simmons and Emma Stone. Onto the good news in that the supporting role, played by Claire Foy is absolutely flawless as Janet Armstrong, Neil Armstrong’s first wife. Foy who is possibly more experienced than Gosling seizes this role with both hands and makes it her own, not just a ‘stay at home wife/mother’ she has an element of agency as well as input and understanding about how important the mission as well as her husbands work actually is not only to him but to the country as well as the world. As you would expect with this kind of movie as well as the pedigree of the people behind it the rest of the cast id filled out with some great modern character actors who lend authenticity to their roles as people who are burdened with life risking work as well as being competitive with each other, they all work wonderfully.

The actual production values of “First Man” are extremely high which is impressive as it is made on a relatively modest budget of US$59 million considering it has a large cast, is a period film and required quite a lot of CGI and special effects. There is no doubt that the centrepiece of the movie is the Moon landing that is carried out as well as any sequence over the past year, it combines some amazing special effects as well as acting and the use of the score is so subtle but works extremely well. In fact in terms of the score by double Oscar winner and long time Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, it has been written so well, but used sparingly that it never manipulates the viewer into making them think a certain way, it is possibly the most under appreciated element of this film. 

The unfortunate thing about this movie is that not enough people went to cinemas to see it, which means that studios will be shy about making these types of movies in the future, which is a loss for everyone. This is an adult movie about very real and personal issues that effect us all in one way or another, it is about loss, succeeding after failure, what family means and what do we leave behind once any given time of life is over. There are a few parts of “First Man” that should have been adjusted but even taking that into account I actually recommend this highly as one of the better films from last year and a welcome addition to any collection.

Technical Commentary:

Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings “First Man” to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack. The triple-layered UHD100 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-elite case with a lightly-embossed slipcover. At startup, the disc goes straight to a static screen with the usual options along the left side and music.

Video

“First Man” comes to Ultra HD with a highly satisfying HEVC H.265 encode that impressively and surprisingly offers a better viewing experience than the Blu-ray.

The drama was shot on a combination of 16mm, 35mm and 65mm film, and those elements were later mastered to a 2K digital intermediate. The video continuously fluctuates from razor-sharp definition with a very fine layer of grain to glaringly soft awash in a prominent coating of grain. Nevertheless, the 2160p transfer enjoys a notable uptick overall, showing significantly better clarity of the background information. In the end, the picture delivers an appreciable, very film-like step-up over the Blu-ray.

The 4K video also makes the historic voyage with dynamic contrast while remaining faithful to the creative intentions of the filmmakers. Although comparatively brighter overall, the more somber conversations still show some restraint, but the sequences with space travel receive a notable boost, displaying crisp, radiant whites in Earth’s skies, the sterilized spacesuits and the space capsules.

The biggest and most significant improvement is undoubtedly the color palette. Whereas its HD SDR counterpart felt a bit more subdued and somewhat low-key.A

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary: Director Damien Chazelle sits down with screenwriter Josh Singer and editor Tim Cross for an amusingly informative conversation on the technical details behind the production and the amount of work that went into a few key sequences.
  • Putting You in the Seat (HD, 7 min): A fascinating and enlightening look at the innovative technology used for the production’s creative visual style. 
  • Recreating the Moon Landing (HD, 6 min): Exactly as the title implies, the featurette is a behind-the-scenes look at recreating the historic moment and doing it justice. 
  • Giant Leap in one small Step (HD, 5 min): A much-too brief piece on Neil Armstrong and the production’s emphasis on his personal life. 
  • Shooting for the Moon (HD, 4 min): Chazelle talks about his involvement in the production, adapting the historic event for the silver screen and working with Ryan Gosling. 
  • Preparing to Launch (HD, 4 min): Cast & crew interviews discussing their part in bringing the little-known story about Armstrong and the Apollo 11 launch for mainstream audiences. 
  • Astronaut Training (HD, 4 min): Cast attends astronaut bootcamp prior to filming. 
  • Mission Gone Wrong (HD, 3 min): A quick look at some of the stunt work. 
  • Shooting at NASA (HD, 3 min): Interviews chatting about the joy of using real-life locations. 
  • Deleted Scenes (HD, 4 min)


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