Home Entertainment Review: First Man (Universal)

“We’re planning on that flight being successful.” ‘First Man’ is a 2018 biographical film about Neil Armstrong directed by Damien Chazelle, based on the book, ‘First Man: the life of […]

“We’re planning on that flight being successful.”

‘First Man’ is a 2018 biographical film about Neil Armstrong directed by Damien Chazelle, based on the book, ‘First Man: the life of Neil A. Armstrong’, by James Hansen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer. The movie was put together by some very talented people. Chazelle, Linus Sandgren, the director of Photography, and composer Justin Hurwitz won academy awards for 2016’s ‘La-La Land’. Singer won one for 2015’s‘Spotlight’, editor Tom Cross won one in 2014 for ‘Whiplash’, and Steven Speilberg produced it.

‘First Man’ joins 1983’s ‘The Right Stuff,’ the seminal 1998 HBO miniseries, ‘From the Earth to the Moon’, and 2016’s ‘Hidden Figures’, in the pantheon of great works depicting the birth of the American Space program of the 1960s and the beginnings of NASA.

The film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, with Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Cory Stoll, Shea Whigham, and Olivia Hamilton, but the real heavy lifting in this movie is done by Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, Neil’s long-suffering wife.

This is the most inward-looking movie about outer space I’ve ever seen. It starts with an impressive display of minimalistic, incredibly efficient film-making. In a few cuts and without a word being said, the stage is set. We know everything we need to know going forward as to the motivations of the man, Neil Armstrong: Anguished Parents/ Caring Doctor/ Little Girl/ Radiation Treatments/ Coffin lowered Grave-ward.

The audience is with him. We are in Armstrong’s head, and along for the ride. Everything that follows is perfectly understandable. We get what drives this man. We observe it through a tight lens of his life’s struggle with his inner demons and the repercussions of his daughter’s death in an impossibly repressive environment. He just can’t talk to anyone about the grief eating at his soul. If he talks to his team-mates and fellow test pilots, he’s afraid he’d lose his flight status. His best friend Ed White, (Clarke) tries to help him, but Armstrong pushes him away. If he talks to his wife, he’d betray his own hard-as-nails, stoic, sexist self-image. It seems like he thinks that if he breaks, she will shatter. Armstrong is barely maintaining a façade as the perfectly competent, composed test pilot, but there are cracks in that wall that widen as the film progresses.

Take away the bells, whistles and Saturn Vs, ‘First Man’ renders down to a movie about a severely depressed man and his inability to deal with his emotions. Neil Armstrong is a bottle rocket. He stuffs all this pain and fear, horror and hurt deep down inside him, pumping in more and more, repressing more and more over the years until he’s ready to burst. There is an amazing scene, where he crashes the lunar-lander test vehicle. The vehicle goes down in flames. He bails out. He lands hard, dusts himself off, gets first aid and goes home to change his shirt. When Janet sees his burns and bandages and promptly loses her shit, he doesn’t understand why. She doesn’t understand that he HAS to go back to work. His personal and professional tragedies haunt him and taunt him. The only thing he can do is keep moving, keep testing, keep flying. He has no solution to his overwhelming pain other than escaping out from under it. To get away from it all… and what could be farther away from it all than the moon? The only people allowed to express themselves in this film are the wives, and nobody listens to them anyway, because it’s the sixties.

It’s like the Swamp Castle joke from Monty Python. His daughter dies. His team-mates die. He ALMOST dies. His best friend suffocates, burns up and THEN dies, along with the other two crewmembers of Apollo 1. (Shown in a highly accurate, highly graphic recreation) While all of this is happening, he goes about his business crashing planes and preparing for space, with only the slightest bit of attention focused on his wife or two sons when he can spare it. This is a man crushed by the weight of his world and running from it (or flying from it) as fast as he can.

Space is the place. The film finally opens up, not when we get into orbit, but only when we reach the moon. All of the flight sequences are maddeningly claustrophobic and dark. The only real illumination (as much of it as there is) is streaming through the portholes, but once he does that small step and the giant leap, the movie explodes with light. The narrow confines of the shot compositions from earlier in the movie fall away in a magnificent, breathtaking 360° pan. With the sun gleaming off of his faceplate, Armstrong finds peace in a touching moment that calls for tissues. Have them handy.

‘First Man’ is an impeccably well-made film and would make an excellent addition to any video collection.

Special features include various commentaries and:

Deleted Scenes: More trauma for the Armstrong family.

Shooting for the Moon: Chazelle talks about how he was brought on board the project. There is a discussion with Gosling, about approaching the story through an inward-looking focus. The movie had to be about the moon and the kitchen, how to make the one as grounded and real as the other and maintain a deep commitment to accuracy.

Preparing to Launch: An interview with Chazelle, where he discloses what brought him to this story which was the fact that this particular moment in the historical record had really not been covered on film with such focus before. The combination of the tight biographical nature of the movie plus the larger cultural and geopolitical significance of the first moon landing makes the contents of ‘First Man’ timeless, but it was the advances in effects technology that allowed it to be filmed today.

Giant Leap in One Small Step: Archival footage about Armstrong during crucial moments of the early space program alongside interviews with his children, Chazelle, Gosling, and others, highlighting the contrasts between the character, the man and the myth.

Mission goes Wrong: An effects and stuntwork vignette depicting the crash of the lander-testbed.

Putting you in the Seat: A closer look at the art direction of the X-15 flight and malfunction. Chazelle talks about his desire to project to the audience the sense of claustrophobia. That desire extends to other parts of the movie. He very much wanted to depict the fragility of the early spacecraft, the vulnerability of the crews and the sheer insanity of the very nature of getting to the moon as a concept. A combination of practical props and gimballed cockpit mock-ups in front of synched, curved, high-end LED wall allowed them to achieve that effect, adding to that crushing sense of claustrophobia.

Recreating the Moon Landing: A film short about simulating and capturing the original lunar landing and ladder step-off. Wirework was used to simulate the lower gravity. The scene was shot in a quarry owned by a company that would sculpt the ground to their specifications instead of inside a studio. Also depicted was the complexities of making an actual replica of the lunar lander that could sustain the rigors of filming and exposure to the elements.

Shooting at NASA: Chazelle thought it was of vital importance to get the people who were involved in the real events and ask them how it happened and ask them to help make the movie. They were able to use vans, buildings, doorways, and superstructures available at NASA for the shots they needed. Verisimilitude is heightened by actual locations used to recreate historical moments instead of CG. They were given permission to shoot at Edwards Air Force base for the X-15 sequence

Astronaut Training: The actors get to go to space camp and seeing an actual Apollo capsule along with a Saturn V rocket. The actors got to play with a lot of toys. They also got the whole Boot Camp-camaraderie-bonding schtick.

The ‘First Man’ Blu-Ray is available for purchase now.

About Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.