(Review) Director Damien Chazelle’s visually impressive biopic about the first man to walk on the surface of the moon challenges viewers’ expectations about what a film about the space program is supposed to be by focusing on the man instead of the mission, presenting an intimate and not always flattering portrait of an American hero that most Americans actually know very little about.
Street Date 1/22/19;
Box Office $44.94 million;
$29.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.
Stars Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbot, Ciarán Hinds, Lucas Haas, Shea Whigham, Patrick Fugit.
Space program enthusiasts thinking this biopic about Neil Armstrong would be as awe-inspiring treatment as The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 might want to temper their expectations.
Director Damien Chazelle’s First Man is not altogether about the Apollo 11 moon landing. Strictly speaking, it’s not even about the space program. As the title would imply, it’s a film about Neil Armstrong the man, what drove him to join NASA, and what motivated his efforts to become the first man to walk on the moon. Depictions of spaceflight achievements take a backseat to the character study of the most famous of astronauts that, ironically, most of the public really knew nothing about.
Chazelle’s re-creations of various missions are dazzling visually, but his aim is not to celebrate the achievements of the space program the way other portrayals have. That disconnect between filmmaker objective and audience expectation may be the primary reason the film underperformed at the box office despite massive critical buzz (though, really, how much of the acclaim was simply drafting from the aura of Chazelle’s Best Director Oscar for La La Land is anybody’s guess).
First Man is moody. It’s gritty. It’s lyrical and often plays like a dream, a tone set by a haunting musical score from Justin Hurwitz that often shifts between elegant and droning. And sometimes it’s just depressing. The first two-thirds of the movie feels like a 1970s independent film rather than what one might expect from a big-budget outer space blockbuster.
Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a sullen family man who takes on risk as a means of distracting himself from the grief over the death of his young daughter in the early 1960s. This is a portrait of a man constantly confronted with death, with several of his astronaut friends killed training for missions. Yet Armstrong presses on, despite questions about whether going to the moon is even worth it. As an engineer and pilot, Armstrong is absorbed by the challenges of spaceflight to the seeming detriment of his personal life and relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and two sons. He even conducts a discussion with his children over his chances of surviving the moon mission with the cold stoicism of a press conference.
The depicted missions are presented mostly from the point-of-view of Armstrong, with the final part of the film taken up with Apollo 11. Most of the major events were covered much more comprehensively in HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon, and anyone familiar with that miniseries will be struck by just how much is missing from the depictions here.
That’s not necessarily to the movie’s detriment, since it needs to portray the missions just enough to show how they fit into Armstrong’s story, not America’s. The result of this narrative direction, however, seems to be a choice to portray the missions in a matter-of-fact way more akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey or Interstellar, as opposed to an inspirational achievement the way most audiences would be used to.
The film is less interested in technical details and glosses over several of them, such as an alarm that went off several times during the lunar landing that indicated the navigational computer was being overwhelmed with data (which doesn’t get explained until the bonus materials, for anyone who isn’t otherwise aware of what happened). The film flubs a few details, too, but only the hardcore enthusiasts are likely to notice.
Once viewers can get past such challenges, it’s easy enough to appreciate the film for its technical and artistic merits, which may take several viewings to fully take in.
Notably, First Man was the first big-screen dramatization of an actual Gemini mission, with the depiction of Armstrong and Dave Scott performing the first orbital docking during Gemini VIII. The mission was cut short when a stuck thruster sent the capsule spinning out of control before Armstrong could stabilize the craft. But here’s a prime example of how the decision to stick with Armstrong’s perspective could hamper the audience’s understanding of what was really going on, aside from a colossal malfunction taking place.
Personally, the knowledge I already had of the incident helped me follow what the scene was trying to portray, so I’d recommend checking out the first episode of From the Earth to the Moon for a more omnipresent look at what happened (aside from actual research on it, of course).
Likewise, with the way the film rushes through the lunar landing sequence, the way it’s handled in From the Earth to the Moon’s sixth episode will probably be more to a lot of viewers’ tastes. (HBO would be wise to re-release the From the Earth to the Moon DVD boxed set, assuming they aren’t willing to remaster the visual effects for high-definition to finally release it on Blu-ray).
Judging by an otherwise excellent audio commentary track of Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer and editor Tom Cross, the filmmakers weren’t really interested in how their movie would be compared to previous examples of the genre, other than stylistically. That’s kind of a shame, as the decision to present the Gemini VIII launch from the viewpoint of within the capsule the whole time works well to simulate Armstrong’s experience for viewers, but robs us of what could have been a glorious external view of the rocket launching that hasn’t really been dramatized yet.
Instead, Chazelle saves the inspirational launch for the liftoff of Apollo 11, and while a fully fueled Saturn V rocket is a sight to behold, and First Man manages to craft a solid launch with some good shots of the spacecraft, the filmmakers were going to be hard-pressed to top what we’ve already seen from the Apollo 13 depiction of a Saturn launch, which is the standard-bearer for such sequences.
In addition, the remarkable shot from the trailers of a Saturn launch that’s reflected in a window as Armstrong watches was cut out of the movie. It’s available as one of the two deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, while the film’s trailers haven’t been included with the disc.
The other deleted scene is a sequence of the Armstrong house burning down, which really happened in 1964.
The Blu-ray also includes about 34 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which in conjunction with the commentary provide a lot of insights into the process of adapting the film from James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.
What’s particularly fascinating is the level of practical visual effects employed with models and in-camera opticals rather than an abundance of CGI. In fact, it’s almost as if the filmmakers used technological advancements to improve upon old-school methods, filming models and cockpits in front of a giant LED screen that displays images at a resolution high enough to look like the real deal in the final product (with some digital enhancements).
This results in several visually stunning sequences that look great on the high-definition presentation of the disc. Scenes on Earth were shot with different grain levels to give the film a retro feel that serves its tone well. Of course, Chazelle is saving most of the razzle-dazzle for the final lunar sequence, which was shot with Imax cameras and appropriately shifts aspect ratios to capture the grandeur of it on home video.
To re-create the moon, filmmakers built a giant lunar set at a quarry, filmed at night with an actual full-sized lunar lander mock-up and a giant light in the distance to stimulate the sun (as opposed to the greenscreen and CGI approach most films would likely take today). The results pay off in a visually impressive lunar sequence that provides a real stylistic contrast with how such scenes have been handled before.