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First Man (2018)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
4K UHD Released: 1/22/2019

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Review by Mike Long, Posted on 1/14/2018

The American Space Program has had a mixed history of reactions from the general public. In the 1960s, people were fascinated by the daring feats of the astronauts and the missions captivated audiences both here and abroad. The 1970s saw a decline in space flights and interest began to wane. The introduction of the space shuttle in the early 80s re-captured the imagination of Americans, but the launches became so routine that we began to take them for granted. That is, until the Challenger disaster in 1986. Since that time, we've had a series of shuttle missions (until that program was ended in 2011) and visits to the International Space Station. But, NASA and the Space Program doesn't grab headlines like it once did. Because of this, we can forget about the work which goes into these events and the brave astronauts who are risking their lives to leave Earth. First Man helps to remind us of the heyday of American space exploration.

First Man opens in 1961, where we meet test pilot and engineer Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who lives in California with his wife, Janet (Claire Foy). When he gets word that NASA is ramping up the space program, Armstrong applies to be an astronaut and he's accepted into the program. So, the family moves to Houston and Armstrong begins his astronaut training along side the likes of Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). As the years pass, Armstrong assists in missions and continues his training. When the Apollo launces begin, he finally gets his chance to leave the Earth's atmosphere. This work leads to an invitation to be part of the first team to visit the moon.

First Man is a tough nut to crack. The first thing that you'll notice is that it is a technically polished film. I was very surprised to learn that this wasn't a long-time passion-project for Director Damien Chazelle, as he's put so much detail into the movie. I'm sure that there are some inaccuracies here, but the 1960s technology looks very real and the spacecraft are very impressive. Chazelle has chosen to show many of the spaceflight scenes from the astronaut's point-of-view, placing us in the pilot's seat. This approach becomes quite obvious in the opening scene, as we are in the cockpit of the plane which Armstrong is flying. This visual approach is nicely complimented by the film's sound. We are constantly surrounded by the very distinct noises of the rockets and spaceships. The launch sequence is especially interesting. The rocket is essentially a huge bomb and the separations of the various stages sound like a series of explosions. We are truly placed in the astronaut's place, as we wondering if we are hearing a routine part of the mission or certain death.

It's in the story that First Man gets dicey. This is meant to be the story of how Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon and from the outset, we see that he is a very stoic and private man. Even with that knowledge, it's surprising how little we actually learn about him. We observe how he moves up through the ranks at NASA, finally being chosen for an Apollo mission, but we glean little of his background and training. There is an event which is at the emotional core of the movie, which comes from real-life. But, a quick online search reveals that the closure of this sub-plot, which occurs in the finale, was poetic license. So, the one thing which brings us closest to Armstrong may not be true! This minimalist approach also effects Ryan Gosling's performance. He's known for playing characters with a very flat affect, but his take on Armstrong borders on sleepwalking at times. This man is constantly being surrounded by chaos and death, and he keeps it all inside. Of course, we want our astronauts to be calm and composed, but Armstrong comes across as robotic at times. The movie also does very little to explain what is going on with the space program and NASA. I went through a NASA phase, so I got what was happening, but I had to stop the film and explain the particulars to my wife several times.

One's response to First Man is going to depend on what one is expecting to get from it. If you approach the movie looking for a biopic where you learn all about Neil Armstrong, then you are going to be disappointed. Those looking for a movie which puts a magnifying glass to the space program of the 1960s will also be let down. What First Man does offer is some information about Armstrong, but the real attraction here are the painstakingly detailed re-creations of the space missions. Again, the way in which we are nearly experiencing things first-hand is a memorable cinematic experience and allows Chazelle to show a talent which wasn't seen in the overrated La La Land. Thus, the movie offers some excitement, but ultimately feels very cold. It certainly lacks the suspense and heart found in Apollo 13, although the films are arguably quite similar.

First Man wastes Ethan Embry on 4K UHD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an HEVC 2160p transfer which runs at an average of 60 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only trace amounts of grain (some of this was clearly shot on film) and no defects from the source materials. The colors look very good and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is excellent, as we can make out textures on objects. The depth works very well here and it, oddly enough, makes the tight spaces feel even more cramped. The Disc carries a Dolby Atmos audio track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. From the first moments of the movie, you'll hear that the track isn't fooling around. We get engrossing surround sound effects combined with deep bass sounds. This mix compliments the visuals and truly places us inside the capsule. The surround and stereo effects are very detailed and the bass brings the rockets to life.

The First Man 4K UHD contains several extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Damien Chazelle, Screenwriter Josh Singer, and Editor Tom Cross. The Disc contains two DELETED SCENES which run about 4 minutes. This is dominated by a scene which shows Armstrong enduring yet another tragedy. "Shooting from the Moon" (4 minutes) has Chazelle and Singer describing how they became involved in the project and how they approached the subject matter. "Preparing to Launch" (4 minutes) has Chazzelle and the cast talking about the historical events portrayed in the movie and the task of telling the story. "Giant Leap in One Small Step" (5 minutes) has Armstrong's real-life sons commented on their father in a piece that offers archival footage of the actual man. "Mission Gone Wrong" (3 minutes) takes us on-set to show how a stunt involving the lunar lander was done. "Putting You in the Seat" (7 minutes) examines the unique way in which the film was shot and the how the flights were replicated. We go to the very elaborate moon set to see how the finale was shot in "Recreating the Moon Landing" (6 minutes). "Shooting at NASA" (3 minutes) allows us to see the actors visiting the real locations mentioned in the film. "Astronaut Training" (4 minutes) offers more footage from NASA and allows the actors to comment on what it was like to play these historical figures.

Review Copyright 2019 by Mike Long