Latest Review – First Man [Universal Pictures Home Entertainment]


Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Genre: Drama | Biography • Year: 2018 • Country: US • Running Time: 141 minutes (2:20:59) • Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1 • Image: Colour • Language: English • Rating: 12 • Region: Region B • Video: 1080p High Definition | MPEG-4 AVC • Audio: English Dolby Atmos | English DVS (Descriptive Video Service) • Subtitles: Optional English SDH

Following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival back in August 2018, Damien Chazelle’s powerful and profound biographical drama, First Man, was hotly tipped as an early awards season contender due to the quality of its performances, direction, production design, sublime visual effects, and score. Though sadly, in the wake of some of the more mainstream and commercial films that followed (A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Vice, to name just a few), that much-deserved hype  seemed to ware off quite significantly in the months after its release, with awards boards mostly overlooking the film in all but the technical categories.

Adapted by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) from James R. Hansen’s official (and highly praised) biography of Neil Armstrong, Chazelle’s visceral, immersive film – almost a spiritual sequel to Philip Kaufman’s great 1983 epic, The Right Stuff – is not only a searing look at the turbulent years leading up to the landmark 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing, but also an intense, psychological study of Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), intricately honing in on the emotional toll his perilous career takes on himself and his wife, Karen (Claire Foy).

The Space Race has always been an utterly fascinating subject for writers and filmmakers to tap into, and cinema has given us no shortage of intriguing Space Age dramas, though very few have captured the vulnerability, the isolation and the overall uncertainty quite as effectively as Chazelle does here.

Despite the epic scale of the Space Race, Chazelle’s film is grounded by an intimacy and sensitivity that gives us a much greater insight into the life and psyche of the often cold and emotionless Armstrong. The tragic death of Neil and Janet’s daughter Karen, at just 2 and half years old, is used to powerful effect as a recurring theme at critical moments in Neil’s journey, though Chazelle leaves things fairly ambiguous, and we are never quite certain of the overall impact that devastating loss had on the events that followed. The film suggest that it was Karen’s death that inspired the grief-stricken test pilot to seek out a new career as an astronaut, escape his pain on Earth and strive for greatness, though whether it also contributed to his introversion and cold, matter-of-fact relationship with his wife and children is left open to interpretation.

Gosling plays Armstrong with a quiet intelligence and brooding intensity, brilliantly capturing his inner turmoil through a subtle, nuanced performance, and Foy does a superb job as lynchpin Janet, desperately trying to connect with her detached husband and keep the family together in his absence; two understated, award worthy performances that were criminally overlooked this awards season. There are strong supporting performances too from Jason Clarke as Neil’s close friend and fellow astronaut, Ed White, and Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts.

Performances aside, First Man is a hugely impressive technical achievement, and Chazelle presents the intense training and test launch sequences, and jaw-dropping Moon landing scene – filmed using IMAX cameras and quite possibly most dazzling movie sequence of 2018 – with an extraordinary sense of realism and claustrophobia. Justin Hurwitz’ vintage, theremin-inspired score adds to the atmosphere with a haunting soundscape that is both ethereal and melancholic, giving us a real sense of both the beauty and loneliness of space.

It may be a far cry from Chazelle’s previous films, La La Land and Whiplash, but in First Man he has crafted a film that expertly juxtaposes one of mankind’s great achievements with a complex and penetrating look into the troubled soul of America’s reluctant hero. It is an extremely powerful portrait of grief, failure, heartache, perseverance and triumph during one of the most compelling moments in 20th Century history.

Special Features: 

Deleted Scenes – House Fire (3:37), 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)

Feature Commentary with Director Damien Chazelle, Screenwriter Josh Singer, and Editor Tim Cross

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