First Man: A Stunning Armstrong Biopic (Blu-ray)
Very few directors have had the stunning sort of success that Damien Chazelle has achieved with just his first few films. After a small, well-received debut feature in 2009, he hit it big with “Whiplash,” which won three Oscars and earned Chazelle a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. His very next film, the musical masterpiece “La La Land,” garnered six Oscars, which included Best Director for Chazelle, making him the youngest recipient in the history of the award. At this point, some directors might be content to rest on their laurels, but this was simply not the case for Chazelle. Instead, his ambition and scope only became greater, choosing to tackle the epic story of Neil Armstrong and his journey to become the first man to walk on the moon, which had strangely never been told in a big budget theatrical film before. However, given that it was in the hands of such an amazing artist, it was pretty much guaranteed from the start to be something quite special.
As the film opens in 1961, we meet Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), a test pilot for NASA who is grounded after a recent accident during a flight. Back at home, he and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), are trying to find the best possible treatment for their young daughter’s brain tumor, but she tragically passes away. Shortly after, Neil applies for, and is accepted into, Project Gemini, which will eventually lead into the Apollo missions. We follow Neil as he and his fellow astronauts undergo training, take on missions, and inch ever closer to their ultimate goal. There’s a lot of extremely hard work, and even some terrible tragedies along the way, but these brave men continue to put everything on the line for their ultimate goal of making it all the way to the moon and back.
In terms of storytelling, the story of Neil Armstrong is one that’s obviously not going to hold that many surprises when it comes to this major event in history. Sure, not everyone is going to know the details, including the fact that Neil lost a daughter at a very young age, or all of the various missions that he flew or was involved in leading up to Apollo 11, but for the most part, we all know exactly where the story is headed before the film even starts.
However, that’s hardly important when it comes to Chazelle’s breathtaking film. What’s important here is the journey, how things got to the point where Neil makes it to the moon, takes the first step, and says his now infamous line. It’s really quite fascinating how everyone knows the name Neil Armstrong and what he did, but, as has been pointed out, it’s rather strange how so few people actually know about the man himself. In this sense, a film about his major accomplishment makes perfect sense, but one that covers that while humanizing the man himself and casting a light on what it took to get there makes even more sense.
When it came to picking someone to bring Neil Armstrong to life, they could hardly have made a better choice than Ryan Gosling, who was fresh off his Oscar nomination for his incredible performance in “La La Land.” The humanity he brings to the role is rather remarkable. He brilliantly captures the devastation, determination, and the impact of the whole experience. This is perfectly countered with Claire Foy’s marvelous performance as his wife Janet, who had to endure impossible uncertainty at every step of this monumental journey. They give two of the very best performances of the year, showing exquisite chemistry, and elevating the film to something more than a simple biopic.
Turning to the film’s visuals, we find incredible work on every front, from the costumes and production design to the cinematography and direction. Tons of work went into making the film look and feel period-accurate, and it shows. They even went as far as to shoot it on film, which makes it feel as though it’s even more authentic. It’s hardly a surprise that all of these cinematic artists are Oscar winners/nominees. Their work here is simply impeccable, turning this into an even more immersive experience as we follow along with Neil’s story.
When it comes right to it, “First Man” is easily one of the best films of the year. It’s a remarkable biopic told with great skill, from the incredible performances and a screenplay by Josh Singer that passionately delves into Neil’s life to the multitude of talented artists who brought 60s NASA to life on the screen. Sure, we all know how it ends, but Chazelle’s film is about so much more than that, and for that, he’s to be congratulated on another great addition to his filmography. Looking back at his career trajectory, it simply makes one wonder what he could possibly try to pull off next.
“First Man” comes to Blu-ray in a remarkable 2.39:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. Given that the movie was shot on actual film (as opposed to digital), there is some noticeable grain, but in this case, it gives the film a more authentic feel, adding to the film’s already incredible aesthetics. The Dolby Atmos audio is equally impressive, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and Justin Hurwitz’s beautiful score in excellent quality. Overall, the film has been given marvelous treatment, leaving you with a great experience in both areas.
Feature Commentary: A fantastic track in which director Damien Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, and film editor Tom Cross take you through the making of the film.
Shooting for the Moon (4 Minutes): A brief behind the scenes look at the film, featuring interviews with select cast and crew.
Preparing to Launch (4 Minutes): Another brief look behind the scenes of the film, featuring many more interviews with the filmmakers.
Giant Leap in One Small Step (5 Minutes): A featurette that acknowledges the multitude of people who contributed to the mission.
Mission Gone Wrong (3 Minutes): A featurette that focuses on the lunar lander trainer sequence.
Putting You in the Seat (7 Minutes): A featurette that explores how the film was shot.
Recreating the Moon Landing (6 Minutes): A fascinating featurette that goes behind the scenes of the film’s incredible landing sequence.
Shooting at NASA (3 Minutes): A featurette in which the cast and crew discuss what it was like to film at NASA.
Astronaut Training (4 Minutes): A brief look at the training camp that the actors attended prior to making the film.
Deleted Scenes (4 Minutes): A collection of two deleted scenes, one involving a fire at the
Armstrong’s home and another covering the launch of Apollo 8.
Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” is a stunning biopic that is about so much more than the first moon landing. It’s a humanizing portrait of Neil Armstrong, who, along with several other brave Americans, took on an insanely difficult task and prevailed, despite the hardships along the way. Featuring outstanding performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, it’s a beautifully-made film that includes remarkable work from all involved. Simply put, it’s one of the best films of 2018, and should not be missed.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Follow me on Twitter @BeckFilmCritic.