First Maudlin Man.
That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for Mankind.
— Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, June 1969.
FIRST MAN is a strange piece of dramatic fiction. Not a biopic; not a historical document. Following Neil Armstrong on his pioneering Apollo 11 Moon landing, instead of a science-driven, or politics-driven docudrama, movie attempts to find an emotional center for its protagonist – an emotional center which probably doesn’t exist.
Based loosely on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (Simon & Schuster, 2012), screenplayed by Josh Singer (THE POST) and directed by Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND), FIRST MAN is two movies in one: The first is a masterpiece of technical wonder and stunning production values, leaving us agog at the all-new visuals of Apollo; the second movie swings into intimate airspace by focusing on one man’s perception. In essence, the movie itself reflects what Armstrong’s catchphrase was meant to convey – the majesty of Mankind’s achievements alongside the veracity of being one fragile man.
Both are excellent movies, but only one of them is relevant to the gargantuan feat of NASA and Neil Armstrong intercepting Earth’s satellite, while the other is an Imaginary Movie Arc that unnecessarily unearths painful emotions.
The dichotomy of the two-movie format starts immediately with the movie’s two opening scenes: First, we see Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) piloting an X-prototype aircraft (one of Chuck Yeager’s sound barrier smashers) over the Mojave Desert in 1961. We are in the aircraft’s claustrophobic embrace as it shudders fearfully, battering Armstrong in its quest to attain Mach speeds as it streaks up into low Earth orbit, shaking with fierce, skull-addling convulsions, and then — silence and serenity, as the aircraft kisses the gossamer boundary of sky and space, until – descending into shuddering, groaning metal, bouncing off the atmosphere in thunderous heat-rage… We are in the cockpit – there are no exterior views! – as Armstrong augurs in out of control, shaking, shaking, and is forced to eject, as we see our chute above us, and the plane falling away, erupting into the ground.
Like whiplash, the movie switches gears to a little girl (Karen Armstrong, Neil’s toddler) in the hospital. Quietude, solemnity, as she undergoes treatment for a brain tumor! Neil toys with her bracelet marked “KAREN,” leans his head on her, tries to speak with her, as she listlessly fades.
Movie has introduced us to its two diametric themes – radical pilot / heavyhearted father.
Karen dies. Armstrong, stone-faced, places her bracelet in a drawer and closes it.
From this point forward, at every opportunity, between the scenes of astronaut selection, rigorous training, launching the Saturn V, we flit back and forth with Armstrong and Karen in muted colors, silent, intimate, tragic.
The movie is implying that Armstrong’s clinical demeanor was brought about by this tragedy.
And that’s kinda insulting. Y’see, Armstrong was always the straightest of straight arrows, the squarest of squares. And that’s the most sought-after quality in test pilots. It allows them to perform in the direst of life-threatening situations, and to fight clear-headed out of death spirals with the most logical solutions. But movie implies Karen’s death drove Neil into that cold, unemotional place. Conversely, it says that he could never have attained his level of cold efficiency without that tragedy. And that’s a big bowl of Oceanus Procellarum.
Psychologists ask Armstrong what they think of his impending flight to the Moon. He comes across as ingenuous (seeing it solely as an exploratory mission, rather than an element of the Russian Cold War), “I think space exploration will allow us to see things that maybe we shoulda seen a long time ago, but haven’t been able to before.” They add, “We’re sorry about your daughter.” His reply: “Is there a question?”
Psyche: “Do you think it will have an effect?”
Armstrong: “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.”
Thus, the movie is doing its own psychoanalysis of Armstrong, and (erroneously) coming to the conclusion that he never allowed himself to get close to anyone after the loss of his daughter, for fear that he would lose them, or conversely, that they would lose him, and thus, keeping a distance seemed like the best answer, the logical solution.
Armstrong adopts this stoic, technician attitude even with his wife and kids, which is unintentionally blackly funny. Fully intending to leave for the Moon without even saying goodbye to his boys (remaining aloof), Armstrong is forced by wife Janet (Claire Foy) to explain the danger of the Moonshot to them. He sits blank-faced at the family dinner table, answering his sons’ questions. His eldest asks fearfully, “Do you think you’re coming back?” Armstrong’s answer is boilerplate talking point, as if he’s answering a reporter: “We have real confidence in the mission, and there are some risks, but we have every intention of coming back.” Sad, yes. But hilarious.
But consider, in real life, Armstrong may have been so close-mouthed because he was, in fact, burdened with the knowledge of the competition to beat the Russians to the most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile. It was Classified Top Secret, so the less he said the better. Yet no one in the movie – not one general or technician or civilian – mentions that space flight was about determining military dominance. None of this is Classified anymore – everyone knows the dick-measuring reasons – you can put them in your movie. The fact that FIRST MAN still avoids this subject means the moviemakers are trafficking in propaganda – ironically, exactly like the Russian government.
Someone says, “We’re gonna make so many developments that the Russians are gonna have to start from scratch!” But without showing us that the Russians had beat the Americans in every aspect of the Space Race to that point (first orbiting satellite – Sputnik, first man in space – Gagarin, first EVA – Leonov, first woman in space – Tereshkova), “the Russians” here may as well be a fictional James Bond villain.
Maybe FIRST MAN did not highlight the Space Race because it would expose the brutality of NASA (which is always portrayed in film as heroic). The program’s greatest tragedy was Apollo 1 blowing up on the launch pad, killing three astronauts. There is a short scene showing minimal damage, but the fire was actually extensive and it psychologically affected the scores of techs and astronauts involved. For NASA to continue training and launches due to a Space Race with Russia, or worse, a weapons race with Russia – that would be heartless. In the context of exploration though, now they are brave hearts.
Director Chazelle actually goes where no man has gone before – he tells the story from the astronauts’ point of view. We are strapped inside the claustrophobic Apollo 11 capsule – we rarely see external views! – we hear metal bending, fuel explosions, infernal noise; monumental g-forces push at our chests, wordless scenes of bone-shaking power; we see the gimbals struggle against gravity on a white-hot pillar of fire and black smoke. All new footage of a real goddam Chariot of the Gods! The best launch scene in the history of movies to this point!… Through it all, the astronauts and NASA communicate in nonchalant jargon. This is why they were bred to be such chill cats, as exemplified by Armstrong; knowing they could die at any moment, yet with enough peace of mind to speak so casually when all around them is literally exploding.
Armstrong was chosen by chance. That’s represented well here: that any of the astronauts in the Program might have been the First Man. When Neil is asked, “When you learned that you were commander, were you overjoyed?” He replies, “I was pleased.”
Reporter: “If the flight is successful, you’ll go down in histo—“
Armstrong: “We’re planning on the flight being successful.”
Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is at that presser, more personable than Neil, who, in a foreshadowing wink (to the movie audience), talks about taking his wife’s jewelry to the Moon. Familiar faces flit by, Jason Clarke as Ed White, Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, Patrick Fugit, Ciarin Hinds, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry… but we hardly get to know anyone or their relationship to Armstrong. Liev’s half-brother, Pablo Schreiber, is Jim Lovell, a name we recognize because – Tom Hanks.
For my taste, movie spends too much time with the wives, who had nothing to do with the program except moral support for the astronauts, and simultaneous whining about their lot. In an Apollo documentary, one wife laments: “We didn’t marry astronauts.” True – they married test pilots, who were then chosen for a unique, insane, world-orbiting job that had just been invented. After they became astronauts, most would trade up for more cosmopolitan wives.
For the sake of including a scene that empowers women, anxiety-racked Janet Armstrong chews out NASA heads when Slayton tells her they have it under control: “You don’t have anything under control! You’re a buncha boys making models out of balsa wood!” Well, the fact that she had no clue what the men scientists and men physicists and men engineers were doing, and the fact they successfully flew three men to the Moon and returned them safely, means her tirade is demonstrably wrong. It’s one of those scenes meant to signify “strong wife” but (without the filmmakers or the audience realizing it) her ignorance comes across as stronger.
20 July 1969: “East of Tranquility Base here – the Eagle has landed.”
Armstrong descends the stairs, flubs his one line, then turns back to look at Earth. A true moment of clarity, isolation, in the soundless expanse of motionless space. He leaves the mission for a brief moment to stand above a crater. We are surprised to see Armstrong holding Karen’s bracelet in one gloved hand, Gosling acting the hell out of a man who can’t wipe away tears inside his helmet. He drops Karen’s bracelet into the crater, watches it tumble slowly into pitch darkness… What the hell was that?! That’s Hollywood’s idea of closure.
Did Neil Armstrong really go to the Moon just to throw his dead daughter’s bracelet into a crater? Of course not. (A similar incident is based in fact: Gene Cernan on Apollo 17 would write his little girl Tracy’s initials in the sand “TDC,” which will remain undisturbed for centuries, if not eternity.) Even Neil’s son denies that Neil dropped anything into a crater. I doubt Armstrong’s biographer would have included such a maudlin detail in his book, but think about it: the Hollywood people who wrote this bracelet throughline thought to give Neil Armstrong something to strive for OTHER THAN REACHING THE MOON. No wonder the rest of the world consider them a breed apart of wacko.
Due to that Imaginary Movie Arc, movie does not need to show the parades or accolades or the ubiquitous effect of the Moon landing on Earth culture, and we will not learn of Armstrong’s death in 2012. It ends abruptly with Armstrong in quarantine, Janet visiting; no words, their fingertips touching through the glass. A serene moment that signifies they’re gonna be okay. What is irksome is that the movie implies that Armstrong came back a changed man: he arced to acceptance of his daughter’s death, so, uh, does he now become bubbly and gregarious? Of course not. That’s why – for dramatic purposes – the filmmakers couldn’t show any more of his life. They had given him this agonizing mental crisis to work through and he had supposedly conquered it. They can’t show the nerd Armstrong still ensconced in his square, anti-social test pilot ethos. They also can’t show Neil, like every famous man, replacing his wife with a younger model in later years. That would ruin the throughline and the Imaginary Movie Arc.
So it seems that FIRST MAN succeeds in its technical brilliance of, in Kennedy’s immortal words, “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” But in its quest to find a meaning in Neil Armstrong’s life, it lost its way.