Based on James R. Hansen's biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, director Damien Chazelle along with his cast and crew do an amazing job presenting a portion of Armstrong's life that led to him becoming the first person to walk on the Moon. While that is a feat only 12 men in all of humankind have ever accomplished, First Man reveals that the burdens of life, which so many have experienced, are similarly harrowing and thrilling.
The film opens with a tension-filled scene as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) tests an the X-15 rocket plane in 1961. He bounces off the Earth's atmosphere, but is able to recover. As this is his third mishap of the month, there's a concern he's distracted and should be grounded. That's a reasonable assumption after the revelation his two-year-old daughter Karen is dealing with a brain tumor to which she succumbs. The loss is a hard burden for Neil to carry.
As the missions leading to the moon commence, there is a great cost, both financial, which concerns Congress, and the loss of life of astronauts, which affects their community hard. It is much like losing a family member, although not everyone processes their grief in the same way. For example, Neil never talks to his wife Janet (Claire Foy) about the loss of their daughter. He also snaps at his friend Ed White (Jason Clarke), the first American to walk in space, rebuffing his consolation effort after the funeral of a colleague.
The scenes within vehicles are claustrophobic, as Chazelle puts the viewer not just in with but sometimes in the shoes of Armstrong and others. While these scenes are authentic, they also show how amazing it was that missions were completed and makes the failures more understandable. Thematically, there is a parallel to Neil, who kept his emotions closed off, but Janet strived to open him up. She wasn't always successful, but it paid off when she was, such as getting Neil to talk to his young boys about traveling to the Moon and the possibility he might not come home.
Even though the results are history, the Apollo 11 mission sequence, from lift-off to moon walk, by the film crew is well executed. The trip was not just “a giant leap for mankind” but personally for Neil as well. And stemming from that famous phrase, the audience sees how momentous an event it was for mankind. While the U.S. competed against the Soviets in the space race, many around the globe were proud to see what mankind was capable of and the possibilities that it offered for a better future.
The video has been given a 1080p/ MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Shot on a variety of film formats, the video qualities varied as well from scenes looking drab within the white and gray walls of NASA to scenes with vibrant hues and wide contrast, as seen with the fiery crash of the lunar landing test module. The bright orange and yellow of the fire, along with and black smoke, stand out against the blue and white sky and brown fields. The blackness of space was properly inky.
There are fine texture details on the Mojave Desert floor and the boot prints on the Moon's surface. Shadow delineation was high. In capsules, faces can be made out in dark scenes. At times sunlight intentionally blooms so bright it blows out the image. The image is mostly clean but after Neil gets the news about the Apollo 1, a hair appears at the top left portion of the frame. The shaky camera might be too much for some viewers.
The audio is available in Dolby Atmos, which I heard through my 7.1 set-up. The dialogue is clear. At times, Justin Hurwitz's score can get so bassy it rattles the the subwoofer as do the effects of the Apollo 11 rocket blasting off. There's good ambiance in the surrounds. There is a wide dynamic range and the sound elements are well balanced together in the mix. Audio goes quiet once the capsule is open on the moon.
The Bonus Features include a commentary with Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, and editor Tom Cross talking about the making of the film together, and two Deleted Scenes (HD, 4 min): House Fire and Apollo 8 Launch.
The remaining items, all in HD, are rather short and would have been better served as parts of one making-of feature that included more information. Shooting for the Moon (4 min) - Chazelle, Singer, Gosling, and Foy talk about the taking on the project. Preparing to Launch (4 min) is about how amazing Neil's story is. Giant Leap in One Small Step (5 min) - Armstrong's sons join conversation about their dad. Mission Gone Wrong (3 min) looks at the lunar-landing training scene in which Armstrong ejected from the vehicle. Putting You in the Seat (7 min) - About creating the experience of Armstrong in a cockpit for audiences with input from production designer Nathan Crowley and special effects supervisor J.D. Schwalm. Recreating the Moon Landing (6 min) - Stoll and director of photography Linus Sandgren join the conversation about shooting the sequence, which includes good technical info. Shooting at NASA (3 min) - The space agency helped in creating the film by way of locations and interaction with the folks who were there. Astronaut Training (4 min) - Cast members got to experience what the astronauts did.
First Man is not only an exciting historical adventure, but it does an important service in telling the story of heroes such as Armstrong and others who worked on the Gemini and Apollo projects. The crew does a brilliant job bringing the past to life and the cast matches them by doing the same with the characters. The Blu-ray offers a pleasing high-def presentation, but the film might make one wish for extras about its making.