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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: First Man

“The Hate U Give” is also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The engine strains as it’s pushed to its limit. The thin steel shell of a vehicle shakes and buckles under the pressure. Inside, a mortal man tries to remain cool, calm, and collected, monitoring various indicators that ensure him that all is well and he is not going to suddenly die in a fiery heap.

Yes, I am describing what it was like to drive my first car over 50 miles per hour. However, I am also describing the experience of test pilot/engineer/future astronaut and American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he pilots the experimental X-15 jet through the various layers of the Earth’s atmosphere in the opening moments of “First Man.” I was luckier than Neil in that I wasn’t 140,000 feet from the ground and didn’t have to worry about “bouncing” off of said atmosphere. For a perspective in how sickeningly high up this is, note that commercial jet liners cruise at an average altitude of 30,000 feet. Neil was up to nearly five times that height.

If there is one thing that “First Man” does exceptionally well, it’s capture all of the nitty gritty details of voyaging beyond the shackles of Earth and into the great unknown. We see it again during Neil’s voyages on the Gemini 8 mission (an extremely harrowing, near death experience) as well as landing on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. The stress, the heavy panic breaths, the chaos—it’s all captured spectacularly by director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren.

What “First Man” does less well is capture the humanity of Neil Armstrong. There are glimpses of it, notably the tears he sheds after young daughter Karen (Lucy Brooke Stafford) passes away. She becomes his primary motivation to succeed in what he does. But as a husband to wife Janet (Claire Foy) and father to sons Rick (played at various stages over the years by Gavin Warren and Luke Winters) and Mark (Connor Colton Blodgett), he can be distant and uncommunicative. To be fair, he does have homey, tender moments with them too, but those moments are drastically overshadowed and offset by moments that adversely affect Neil emotionally. He treats these on Earth situations the same way he treats stressful situations up in the sky: He shuts down emotionally, retreats deep into himself, does what he needs to do to solve the problem, and moves on.

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If this portrayal is accurate (only those who knew Neil can attest) then I have no doubt that the stoicism shown in “First Man” is what helped Neil Armstrong survive multiple close encounters with the grim reaper. But it’s also what makes him too elusive to get to know. We know that Neil is very methodical and careful when making calculations. Of his brilliant mind, I have no doubt. As to how he feels about anything—aside from Karen’s passing—I have no idea. As portrayed in “First Man,” it’s as if Neil Armstrong was some kind of savant with a mild case of Asperger’s.

In spite of this flaw in the main character, “First Man” is a riveting visual achievement that puts you right in with the astronauts in the small cramped capsules and cockpits they wedged themselves into in order to come in peace for all mankind. Speaking of, to address the flag on the moon controversy-i.e., the fact that it wasn’t shown—while I do think it’s a mistake to not include such an iconic image, it’s lack of inclusion didn’t bother me. I regard it more as an oversight rather than some kind of anti-American/pro-globalist statement, and it’s clear from all of the American flags on the uniforms, space suits, and space craft exactly who sent the first man to the moon. There is even an archival interview with a French woman who states how proud she is that America made it. Indeed they did—with Neil Armstrong leading the way. Rent it.

More New Releases: “The Hate U Give,” about a young girl who must decide what to do after she witnesses a police officer fatally shoot her best friend, starring K.J. Apa, Regina Hall, Anthony Mackie, and Common; “To Err Is Human,” documentary about the deaths caused due to preventable mistakes while receiving medical care; “Chicken Run,” brilliant stop motion animation comedy from Aardman Animations from 2000, about trapped chickens who want to escape a farm, featuring the voice talent of Mel Gibson, Phil Daniels, Miranda Richardson, Timothy Spall, and Imelda Staunton; and “The Noctambulist,” about a woman who descends into madness coping with her mother’s death, starring Nadia White, Steve Summerlin, and Anna Jane.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.