Theatrical release poster
by Peter J. O'Connell
First Man. Released: Oct. 2018. Runtime:141 mins. MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.
Youngster to his mother: “Mom, what's wrong?” His mother: “Nothing, honey. Your dad's going to the Moon.” This bit of dialogue mixing the everyday with the extraordinary encapsulates the essence of First Man. The film, directed by Damien Chazelle, deals with the life of astronaut Neil Armstrong and the epochal space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the moon.
Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a quiet, modest man. His quietude is not that of the “strong, silent” hero of Western movies, with an aura of possible alienation and potential violence. Armstrong is, we might say, a humble hero, focused on family life and concerned to do his duty within the large organizations of which he is a part, the military and the space agency (NASA).
We first encounter Neil as a test pilot in the 1950s, in a flight that turns into a debacle. Neil strives thereafter, through a high level of competence, to put that debacle behind him. Harder—in fact, impossible—to put behind him is the death of his beloved young daughter. Her memory is always with him, but his marriage to his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), remains strong, and the couple has two sons whom they love very much.
After Neil is chosen in 1962 to train to be an astronaut, Janet does, however, start to become concerned, as her husband spends more and more time in his training and study. The film shows very well the scope and scale of the space agency, with its many staffers, and the dangers and difficulties involved in the astronauts' training. When three of Neil's comrades are burned to death in an accident, Neil's continuing burden of sorrow from his daughter's death is added to.
The accident, of course, greatly increases Janet's concerns. These concerns reach a peak when Neil is chosen for the Moon mission. In a sense, Janet becomes concerned that Neil is not outwardly “concerned enough” himself. She confronts him in a memorable scene: “What are the chances you're not coming back? Those kids, they don't have a father anymore! So you're gonna sit the boys down, and prepare them for the fact that you might never come home!”
By 1969 the time for the Moon flight has arrived. The film's color palette fades considerably as the space craft surveys the bleak, barren lunar surface, which is actually compelling enough in black, white, and gray to have a kind of beauty of its own in the immensity and quietude of space. Yes, we do know “how it all turns out,” but the film sustains suspense as to the fate of the mission nonetheless. And then there is that world-historical moment as Neil steps off the Eagle onto Luna: “That's one small step for [a} man, one giant step for mankind.” The space hero then returns to Earth and his family. Some personal items that Neil left behind on the Moon have never been disclosed, but the film hints cautiously, and movingly, at what they might have been.
First Man is a film that consistently holds one's interest, though it doesn't quite manage to lift off into the realm of the fascinating and the gripping. Perhaps Gosling's “underplaying” to express the nature of a humble hero is a bit too “under”? Claire Foy, however, brings a fresh feeling to the role of “worried, waiting wife” that in other hands might have just been a cliché. Director Chazelle's choices of ways to tell the story are generally fine, though the very concluding scene is rather odd, and the omission of a scene showing the implanting of the American flag on the Moon has proved controversial.
“Footnotes” to the film: (1) The American flag is seen once, briefly, in the distance during the lunar sequence of the film, but the implanting of the flag is not shown. Generally, it has always been assumed that Armstrong intended his “one small step for [a] man” as an acceptance of his own role in the mission and “one giant step for mankind” as an acknowledgment of the mission's universalistic importance and the implanting of the American flag as an expression of American pride and patriotism in winning the space race, which was an aspect of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Reaching the Moon before the Soviets was President Kennedy's goal when he launched planning of the Moon mission in 1961. The work of thousands of Americans at NASA and elsewhere was necessary to achieve the victory of 1969. Is the omission of the implanting of the flag an example of what some on the political right mean when they say that “Hollywood hates America”? Or is it simply a desire to emphasize universalistic humanism? Ryan Gosling says that the mission “transcends countries and borders . . . . I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement . . . that's how we chose to view it . . . . I don't think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero.” Actually, the real reason for the omission is probably simply the importance of the foreign market to the bottom line of films today. A production can't be seen as too specifically American or, for example, too anti-Chinese or too anti-Muslim—that might negatively impact sales abroad. (2) An issue connected with the film that has not been much commented upon but is worth raising is the casting of Gosling and Foy as the Armstrongs. Both are very talented and appealing performers, but neither is American. Were there no American actors who could play the roles of this American hero and his spouse? It would be absurd, even vicious, to claim, as some today do, that only an actor of a certain group should play a member of that group, but when a relatively recent particular achievement of a certain group (in this case, Americans) is of great importance and there are many performers in that group capable of playing the relevant roles, why not cast from that group?