Under the Radar

'First Man' Got Jobbed: Why You Need to See a Great American Movie

Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle on the set of "First Man." (Universal Pictures)

"Political correctness" torpedoed one of the finest movies of 2018. "First Man" (out now on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital) tells the moving story of astronaut Neil Armstrong from his days as a pilot of the X-15 rocket plane up through his mission to the moon in 1969.

Director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling focus on Armstrong's personal perspective. Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) lost their daughter Karen to illness in the early 1960s, and her memory colors everything that happens to Neil over the course of this movie.

There are a million ways to tell any story, and this one focuses on that personal pain and how it drove Armstrong to success in the space program.

Unfortunately, there are people of all political stripes in America who don't care about stories or art and look for a way to fabricate outrage. Those forces attacked "First Man" for not showing the exact moment when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (brilliantly and arrogantly played here by Corey Stoll) planted the U.S. flag on the moon.

Somehow, "First Man" became an unpatriotic attack on America in the mainstream media. Everyone from Fox News to CNN to MSNBC jumped on the bandwagon for a cheap story based on a tweet. Because controversy sells. Only a few hundred people had actually seen the movie at this point, after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

Everyone associated with the movie was rightfully baffled. There are more images of United States flags in "First Man" than in every other 2018 Hollywood movie put together.

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More importantly, the movie shows the true heroism of the men and women behind our space program. Given what should have been an impossible task, they managed to land men on the moon with technology that hadn't yet been invented (or even conceived) when JFK made his speech in 1962. Less than seven years after that speech, Americans accomplished a task that no other country has managed to even attempt almost 50 years later.

"First Man" captures the danger of the space program better than any other movie. The planes and rockets and capsules are all fragile and barely able to withstand the forces they endure. Astronauts train and see the engineering calculations, but they really don't know what's going to happen until that rocket ignites.

Gosling gives the kind of internalized, strong-but-silent performance that usually loses out to flashier work during awards season. Rami Malek in "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Christian Bale in "Vice" may be doing the flashier acting, but Gosling's eyes convey the sadness, fear and determination that drives his character. Bravery has seldom been better portrayed on film.

The effects are spectacular. The opening X-15 sequence (shot from Armstrong's perspective) is truly terrifying and drives home just how primitive these early spacecraft were. That sense of urgency continues through the Gemini program, the Apollo 1 disaster, and Armstrong and Aldrin's landing on the moon.

Anyone who knows NASA history will appreciate a series of stellar performances by Kyle Chandler (Deke Slayton), Shea Whigham (Gus Grissom), Jason Clarke (Ed White), Patrick Fugit (Elliot See), Christopher Abbott (Dave Scott), Pablo Schreiber (Jim Lovell), Cory Michael Smith (Roger Chaffee), Lukas Haas (Mike Collins) and Ethan Embry (Pete Conrad).

The 4K transfer on this home video release is so beautiful that it's worth upgrading your disc player if you've already bought a 4K UHD television. The movie emphasizes practical effects over computer-generated images wherever possible and that approach really helps amp up the tension for viewers.

Hopefully, "First Man" will have a long life on home video and cable. It'll be 50 years this July since Armstrong's Apollo XI moon landing, and there are generations who don't really know the story of one of man's (and the USA's) greatest scientific accomplishments. This movie tells that story through the life of Neil Armstrong, who (no matter what the news says) was a great patriot who risked his life for science, his country and the future of mankind.

Think for yourself. Watch "First Man" and find out how brave these astronauts really were.

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