Release Date(s)2018 (January 22, 2019)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures/Amblin/DreamWorks (Universal)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: B-
It’s a fascinating when a film is released at the wrong time, in the wrong cultural moment, to an audience that either doesn’t know what to expect of it or isn’t in the right mood for it. Critics may or may not see such a film for what it is, but the public passes on it and the box office is disappointing. This is no fault of the filmmakers. It’s happened before, with It’s a Wonderful Life, Blade Runner, Fight Club, and many other films. But with the perspective of time and distance, and thanks to home video, we eventually come to see and appreciate these films for what they actually are.
First Man is not what people expected going in. The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, The Martian… these films follow a tried and true formula. They’re about the triumph of American ingenuity and perseverance, as exemplified by NASA astronauts and engineers. They’re high flying, edge of the seat dramas; will they or won’t they succeed in the mission, will they or won’t they get home safely? But ingenuity and perseverance always prevail in the end, leaving us cheering and with a good feeling as the credits roll. In the troubled and divided times we now find ourselves, people likely wanted that kind of cinematic comfort food.
First Man is not that formula. It is, first and foremost, the inner story of Neil Armstrong. It’s about what he and his wife went through, what they experienced, and the extraordinary pressures and losses they faced during the Moon race (which were actually worse in reality than what’s depicted in the film). Despite all of this, Neil was the right man, at the right time, to get the job done. First Man is about what that experience must have been like for him, what that effort cost him, and how it changed him. It’s a remarkable and sophisticated piece of filmmaking.
In terms of accuracy, this is the single most realistic dramatic film about spaceflight yet made. Every stitch, every rivet, and every switch… it’s all correct. The only time liberties were taken were to illustrate or simplify things for the audience. Adding to the realism is the fact that Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the first third of the film, depicting Armstrong’s test pilot days through the early Gemini program, in Super 16 mm. This means it looks exactly like actual NASA documentary footage from the period. In fact, some of that real footage is used in the film and VFX shots are made to match it. The middle sections, depicting the Apollo era, are shot in 35 mm (both 2-perf and 3-perf), but with a strong grain texture, which still feels period and yet suggests the passage of time. During the Apollo 11 flight as seen in the film, the CAPCOM radio calls from Houston are often the actual recordings of the real events. (Astronaut Charlie Duke, who was the real CAPCOM for the mission, even recorded a bit of new radio dialogue for this film, which has been blended with his original audio from 1969.) And when Armstrong and Aldrin eventually step out onto the lunar surface, the footage switches to 65 mm IMAX, so the clarity hits you like a wall. The filmmakers are even using the same lenses the Apollo astronauts did in their still photography on the surface. It’s as if First Man was actually shot in the 1960s, with a level of verisimilitude and immersion that sets a new bar for a film of this type.
The accuracy is so good, in fact, that it simply melts into the background, allowing actors Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner: 2049) and Claire Foy (The Crown) to shine as Neil and his wife Janet. Armstrong had the stoicism typical of most men in that era, but he was a test pilot too. And even among the astronauts, he had a uniquely closed off and focused quality. He was a cool cucumber, who rarely showed his emotions. So these performances aren’t showy, they’re restrained, and they’re captured perfectly by close framing on faces. Volumes of feeling are expressed in half smiles, tiny gestures, little nuances. The rest of the cast is remarkable too, including Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as Deke Slayton, Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as Ed White, Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island) as Gus Grissom, and Ciarán Hinds (The Sum of All Fears) as Robert R. Gilruth, among others. All of their work is enhanced by directorial and editorial choices that play with contrasts of mood, of light, of movement, emotion, and framing.
Despite having been shot in three different film formats, it appears that First Man was finished as a native 2K Digital Intermediate. This would seem troublesome at first, but when you consider that one of those formats was Super 16, and that even with the 35 mm footage, grain was pushed to give the film the texture of archival footage, it’s probably not surprising. It’s possible that the IMAX footage at the end was actually included in native 4K, but I can’t be sure. What I can tell you is that the film’s framing does preserve the shifting aspect ratios, which go from 2.40:1 for most of the running time to full 1.78 for the scenes on the lunar surface. Color has been graded for high dynamic range in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and this really does give the film an extra bit of richness and dimensionality. Blacks are deepened and the color palette, especially early in the film, has a warm and vibrant 1960s Kodachrome quality. The HDR also allows instrument panels and indicators to pop nicely. The image texturing overall is very nicely refined and exhibits lovely detail.
Audio options on the 4K UHD include English Dolby Atmos, as well as French and Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus. Optional subtitles include English SDH, French, and Spanish. Simply put, the Atmos mix here is reference quality in every respect. The soundscape is big and wide in the flight sequences especially, with remarkable depth in staging, and lovely contrasts between hull-rattling bombast and airy silences. The rattle-scream of the X-15’s frame, the metallic click of hose connections and seat harnesses, the woosh-BAM of RCS thrusters, the thunderous blast of rocket launches, the contained sounds of breathing within spacesuit helmets, radio com chatter, it’s all here in a level of nuance and clarity that should please even the most demanding AV enthusiast. Dialogue is clean and crisp and the height channels give a terrific lift to several spaceflight moments (the X-15 flight is especially notable, as well as the Gemini 8 flight – both the launch and also the spinning thruster emergency). The icing here is Justin Hurwitz’s ethereal theremin and Moog-infused score, which was actually inspired by a real piece of music that Armstrong took with him to the Moon. This is just a tremendous sound mix and one that’s likely to be a serious Oscar contender this year.
Universal’s 4K Ultra HD release actually contains some worthy extras. They include (in 1080p HD):
- Audio commentary with director Damien Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, and editor Tom Cross
- Deleted Scene – House Fire (3:37)
- Deleted Scene – Apollo 8 Launch (0:37)
- Shooting for the Moon (3:40)
- Preparing to Launch (3:39)
- Giant Leap in One Small Step (4:31)
- Mission Gone Wrong (2:42)
- Putting You in the Seat (7:09)
- Recreating the Moon Landing (6:01)
- Shooting at NASA (3:11)
- Astronaut Training (4:02)
The audio commentary is quite good and insightful on a number of levels, especially in terms of the detail and attention that was put into this film. The filmmakers cover many topics, including how different scenes were approached, how the cut or editing rhythms changed from scene to scene over time in post, and how much of the dialogue comes directly from real events, recordings, or interview comments. (If you’d like to know more after listening to this commentary, I highly recommend Josh Singer’s First Man: The Annotated Screenplay.) The two deleted scenes are only about four minutes in all, but I’m very glad they were included here. I understand why the fire scene (which actually happened in real life) was cut from the film, but I do wish the Apollo 8 launch shot hadn’t been, as it was a powerful moment in the trailers that I missed. Sadly, those trailers are not here, but you do get about an hour’s worth of behind-the-scenes featurettes, all of which are very good. I just wanted a lot more. This is a film that I would kill to see a feature-length “making of” documentary produced for, but those days seem to have passed in the home video industry. Still, what you do get is all worth watching and I suppose we should be glad it’s there at all. Naturally, you also get the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray (with the same extras), and there’s a Digital copy code on a paper insert too.
Back to the film itself for a moment: There’s one criticism in particular that I wanted to address here… and no, it’s not the flag controversy (which was contrived and flatly ridiculous). There’s a moment in the film where Armstrong, while on the lunar surface, pays tribute to the daughter he lost. Some have questioned this as dramatic license, disbelieving the notion that Armstrong would have shed a tear on the lunar surface, being a buttoned-up test pilot. First, this moment takes place in the one brief period of time during the EVA on the lunar surface that wasn’t scheduled in the mission plan. Neil actually did sort of walk off, over to a nearby crater, by himself for a moment. We don’t know that he actually took something of his daughter’s along on the flight, but his biographer (upon whose book the film is based) and family apparently think it’s possible. Each of the astronauts took personal items along on their flights in a little pouch known as a PPK – the inventory list for Neil’s is under seal in the archives of Purdue University until about ten years after his death. For a man with such a strong attention to detail as Armstrong, that doesn’t seem like an oversight. As for the notion that a veteran Apollo astronaut might shed a tear on the moon, I’ll simply leave you with this:
“… when I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the surface of the Moon, I cried. And if anybody had ever told me I was going to do that, I’d have said, ‘No, you’re out of your mind.’ Whether it was relief, or whether it was the beauty of the Earth, the majesty of the moment − I don’t know, just every − you know, I never would’ve said I was going to do that. But I did.”
– Alan Shepard, the first American in space and commander of Apollo 14
(from Andrew Chaikin’s Voices from the Moon)
First Man is something truly special and singular. It’s a film of stunning authenticity, that places you in the capsule seat and in the spacesuit for some of the most hair-raising and iconic moments of American manned spaceflight. It’s also a powerful and affecting experience that gives audiences the chance to understand Neil Armstrong as never before, to walk in his shoes, and to ride along with him on a journey that he – like all of the Apollo astronauts – struggled to process and comprehend for the rest of his life. First Man is a masterpiece and, thanks to Blu-ray and 4K, the time will come when far more people realize it.
- Bill Hunt