With the Academy Awards coming up in just a few weeks, I was happy to have received an advanced copy of the First Man blu-ray, courtesy of Universal Studios. Sure, having been nominated for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Editing, and est Sound Mixing might not be on par with, say, “Best Director” or “Best Picture”, but they’re still worthy achievements deserving of recognition from the Academy, and the industry at large. Having not had the chance to see it in its initial run, I was excited to finally get a chance to sit down and give this title a whirl. The follow-up to his 2016 Best Picture winner, La La Land, this biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) by writer/director Damien Chazelle was exciting, focused, an a beautiful transfer from the large screen, to the small one.
Detailing the decade leading up to the moon landing in July 1969, First Man is a surprisingly focused look at Neil Armstrong’s achievements and escapades leading up to his being chosen to command the Apollo 11 mission. Claire Foy plays his wife, Janet, with considerable aplomb, and a growing cold detachment brought on by the death of their daughter Karen (here, an event that occurs very early in the film), and the stress of the increasing risks and dangers of her husband’s profession. There are three key set-pieces that lead up to the climactic moon landing (itself shot in IMAX; when the sequence began the top and bottom black bars on my TV disappeared…at once reminding me of the cinematic experience that I had missed by not seeing it in theaters).
As detailed in the special feature, “Mission Gone Wrong”, star Gosling performed most of his stunts for the film (at one point suffering a concussion during a scene involving a g-force simulator), and, as detailed in the “Putting You In the Seat” feature, most of the film and effects were shot in-camera, which was a wildly interesting fact to learn. Having been interested in NASA, and the moon landing in particular (hell, I took a trip to the NASA headquarters just this past year, while on a cruise!), this had me hooked from frame one. The sound design for which the film is nominated was incredibly well-utilized as well; we hear the film start before we see anything, and Chazelle and editor, and sound designer, Tom Cross, and Phil Barrie, respectively, make incredible use of silence; the entire moon landing sequence opens up on a panorama of the moon landscape, as the camera starts in the lunar module, the main airlock opened, and the camera seemingly sucked out into the silent vacuum. Even on a home TV, it was remarkable.
And it seems presumptuous to ignore the non-existent “controversy” revolving around the film, as certain pundits railed at the movie (without having seen it themselves) for not showing the American flag enough (if the film were called First Flag, or Moon Flag, or even Flag Flag, these childish complaints MIGHT have some weight). As it is…it doesn’t matter. This film highlights one of the single greatest moments in history, one that is at once both purely American, and transcendentally human. By keeping such a laser focus on Armstrong as a man — fraught with doubt, insecurity, and failings as any other, and shown with a slight detachment that underlies the seriousness with which he took his profession — Chazelle makes the climax at once powerfully human and universal, but interspersed with a deeply personal moment (you’ll know it when you see it). The focus was on the man himself, not the minutiae. Refreshingly, most of the action and launch sequences were given the POV treatment: rarely does the audience see that action from a distance, or even from an exterior shot, instead focusing on the effect of space flight (or an out-of-control capsule) has on the men both physically, mentally, and psychologically. It’s a refreshing perspective.
The blu-ray is a beautiful, sharp transfer, and I look forward to exploring all the special features (including the feature commentary). Included is a standard definition DVD copy, and a digital download code. Having won two Golden Globes (Claire Foy for Best Supporting Actress, and composer Justin Hurwitz for Best Original Score), now is the perfect time to pick it up if you haven’t had the chance to check it out in theaters. 4/5 Bibles.
First Man is now available on blu-ray, and digital streaming services, and still playing in some select theatres.