Movie diaries: First Man
Everyone’s favorite “Hey Girl” meme-dreamboat Ryan Gosling is transformed into the level-headed, anxiety resistant first human to step on the moon, Neil Armstrong, in the recently released film, First Man.
When I was about three years old, I told my mother that I was going to someday get into a space ship and go to the moon to wave back at her and then return home. Within the first minute of First Man I realized that this is a goal I will never accomplish. Why? Because going into space is probably one of the most stressful things a human can do and I think I would literally flip the eff out and explode into smithereens before catching a glimpse of the arc of the earth in the horizon! With the jostling, buzzing, beeping spacecraft and someone in my ear asking what was going on, I would totally lose it. That was the theme of the film – Armstrong’s ability to cope (or not cope) with stress. Apparently, there was so much literal shaking during filming that at one point Gosling received a minor concussion.
First Man pairs Gosling agin with director Damien Chazelle who wrote and directed the Oscar-winning (and over-hyped) La La Land. To Chazelle’s credit, these are two very different films and I think First Man is the better of the two. Claire Foy was cast as Armstrong’s steady and supportive wife who had to frustratingly contend with raising children while her partner was extremely focused on his work getting into space.
There is a lot of a wonder and amazement concerning space travel, but what this film did extremely well is focus on some of the harsh realities involved in the mission to the moon. The experiments and simulations leading up to the journey often ended in repeated tragedy, which was perhaps exacerbated by the loss of Armstrong’s young daughter prior to his time at NASA. The film was shot beautifully and at times was jarring when the camera put you in the point of view of Armstrong.
Focus was a major theme of the film, the razor-like focus involved from not just Armstrong, but all of the scientists supporting the Gemini and Apollo missions in the backdrop of the late 1960s in the U.S. Usually, films from this era include a lot of popular music from the time, and I was pleasantly surprised with getting through a film about the sixties that did not include Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son. The only nod to current events outside the space race was the inclusion of a brief protest scene with Leon Bridges’ interpretation of Gil-Scott Heron’s Whitey on the Moon. The score of the film was composed by Justin Hurwitz was haunting and beautiful, crafting the anxiety, focus and splendor of what was one of humankind’s greatest accomplishments. The music is my favorite part about First Man, and when reflecting on similar films like Apollo 13 it is just such an artistic improvement.
Claire Foy gave a great performance as Janet, holding down the house back on earth and the reality of day to day life. Often, films about cultural or historic heroes paint the spouses as begrudging or nagging or albatrosses to the hero’s success; however, I think that Foy did a great job in portraying Janet Armstrong as the buttress to her husband’s work. Without her support and strength dealing with the emotionally unavailable Armstrong, perhaps a different person would have been the first human on the moon. She is not a victim; rather, she bears the same pressures and anxieties and the same strengths are required of her as they are the astronauts themselves. Arguably, being the wife of an astronaut during the age of space exploration was exceedingly difficult, and the film really hit home how emotionally detached Armstrong was, perhaps the key to handling the extreme stress of his work.
Armstrong is a really interesting hero, considering that unlike other public figures he shied away from the spotlight and very rarely discussed the moon landing later in his life. He explicitly did not want to be a “human memorial” and the few comments he did make about space exploration reflected a resentment about the lack of support for continued missions, muttering about out commitment to a manned mission to Mars. In a time when the political climate is exceedingly charged and it feels like scientific research is under constant attack from the majority part in the U.S., I can’t say I blame him. The tragedy of First Man is that it tells the story of perhaps the United States’ greatest accomplishment, which would not have been possible without government funding and support for research, development and education. Now NASA operates with a fraction of the workforce and budget it had during the 1960s. Needless to say, although there have been amazing initiatives that have brought us back beautiful images of the furthest extents of our solar system, it has been a long time since any humans have visited the moon and feels like the days of such exploration have stalled.
So, if you are into space and American (or world) history, I highly recommend First Man. In addition, Lukas Haas is in it as Mike Collins, the man who stayed on the craft orbiting the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took those first historic steps on the lunar surface. I’m always pleased to see him, the kid from Witness, all grown up.
As an aside, the whole time I couldn’t help but think about John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. There is a recording of him noticing what he described as “fireflies” following the Friendship 7 as he circumnavigated the planet – which many have interpreted as UFOs. I always found that story so fascinating and it’s a shame we don’t invest more. Glenn had more hope for our country than Armstrong, and died believing that future achievements like curing cancer and getting to Mars would unite us as a people.