Neil Armstong Story Blasts off While Staying Grounded in Humanity


First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, was a book authored by James R. Hansen, and was the only authorized biography that Neil Armstrong agreed to.  While being published in 2005, its film rights were actually optioned in 2003, a year after receiving Armstrong’s blessing.  Originally Clint Eastwood was set to direct, but the project languished for years in development before finally landing in the lap of Damien Chazelle, who was coming off of his Academy Award for Best Director, for La La Land.  With a script from Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight, The Fifth Estate), First Man is more of an introspective look at the man who was Neil Armstrong, both before, and after, the iconic Apollo spaceflight to the moon in the summer of 1969.

While Josh Singer’s scripts have typically relied on more exposition, due to his seeming affinity for subject matter pertaining to research, newsrooms, and scandals, First Man is an example of narrative minimalism as it pertains to its focused subject, Neil Armstrong.  At the same time the script also takes the opposite approach as it expounds on the scientific accomplishments and communal aspects of the NASA space program in the context of the space race with the Soviet Union, and the larger monumental accomplishment it represented to the larger global community.  Yet, still at the heart of it all, even as Neil Armstrong takes the historic first steps on the lunar surface, is a deeply personal story of a man who didn’t crave the spotlight, but found it anyway.

Much like the man itself, First Man emphasizes the little moments.

Neil is played by Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner 2049, The Nice Guys) who worked with Chazelle on La La Land.  It is a challenging role, as First Man presents much of Armstrong’s character largely as an internal one.  Looks and glances are employed to convey much of what lies buried beneath a quiet and calm exterior.  Interestingly, we see a Neil Armstrong that is very much an open, and forward person early in the film as he tries to find the best care for his young daughter who dies at a young age due to pneumonia, as a result of a malignant brain tumor.   After this, Armstrong retreats inward, often pouring himself into his work, yet only exhibiting mild emotional responses to very large events in his life.

His wife Janet, on the other hand, played by Claire Foy (Breathe, Vampire Academy), is having a hard time keeping her nerves in check.  Between her two sons, which appear to be a handful, as well as the sheer, crushing fear that she and the other wives experience on each of the Gemini and Apollo missions, is indescribable.  Being equipped with a transmitter box which allows them to listen in to mission control’s conversations with their husbands, they live the anxiety-filled moments in real time- especially when things go wrong on these missions.

As a part of the historical record, the sacrifice many of our astronauts made as they sought to pursue the boundaries of space exploration is no secret.  Most notable is the fire in the Apollo I space capsule that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham- Sicario: Day of the Saldado), Ed White (Jason Clarke- Mudbound), and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith- Carol).  The women are depicted in this film of being full of grit, and strength, and possessing a quality of enduring character that allowed them to face some of the most harrowing losses, while still not shrinking back from their responsibilities to be there for their children who often were facing many of the same pressures, and too often, loss.

So many great actors populate this film, including many who won’t get much discussion but add more depth to the story.  They include Kyle Chandler (Argo, Friday Night Lights) as Deke Slayton, Ciaran Hinds (Red Sparrow, Silence) as Gene Kranz, Ethan Embry (Sweet Home Alabama) as Pete Conrad, Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous, Gone Girl) as Elliot See, Brian d’Arcy James (Spotlight, Molly’s Game), as Joseph A. Walker, Christopher Abbott (It Comes at Night) as Dave Scott, Pablo Schreiber (13 Hours) as Jim Lovell, and Olivia Hamilton (La La Land) as Pat White.

The film powerfully captures the sheer magnitude of what it took to pursue these lofty dreams to touch down on the moon’s surface, completing the charge issued forth by President John F. Kennedy nearly a decade earlier.  From the thundering of the rockets as the astronauts make their way to the capsule, to the cramped and confined quarters of the capsules themselves, so much had to go right.  Gosling captures much of this through his simple gazes as he looks around the Gemini module, observing each little screw and wire.

I thought about a line in Star Wars as Luke Skywalker issues a commentary on the Millennium Falcon, the space ship flown by Han Solo and Chewbacca: “What a piece of junk!”, to which Solo responds, “She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts…”  This is exactly the best way to describe our space program in the 1960’s.  I marvel at the way we sent our brave astronauts into space.  It never looked like much, but what this program of astronauts, pilots, engineers, and the like accomplished is near miraculous.  It certainly was made to work.

Armstrong powerfully captures this idea when he tasks the program to keep pursuing their goals, making mistakes here on earth, so that they don’t make them in space.  This is seen clearly as he test-pilots the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) which he crashes, parachuting out in just the nick of time.  A half-second later, NASA concludes, would have resulted in the parachute not have opened, leading to his death.  Armstrong would later argue that the testing of that vehicle yielded success on the moon.

Eventually the film builds until the monumental journey of the Apollo 11 flight which Armstrong commands, along with his crew of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll- Ant-Man) and Michael Collins (Lukas Haas- Inception).  While much controversy has been generated concerning the reported on-screen absence of the American flag on the moon, I can attest that this is completely false.  There is not a dedicated scene of either Armstrong or Aldrin planting the flag, but you will see it there.  The film instead continues to focus on the private and personal experience of Armstrong during that historical moment- which keeps it tonally in line with the entire film as a whole.

First Man is not as intense as Chazelle’s breakout film, Whiplash, or as accessible as the crowd-pleasing La La Land, but it is more powerful in its introspection and study of one man’s personal journey set against one of the most grandiose achievements in all of mankind.  For those wanting more of a big-picture epic of the space race, this will not be a film that you’ll enjoy, as a cloud of melancholy, or muted optimism, seems to hang over Neil Armstrong’s calm, and seemingly unaffected exterior demeanor.  For those willing to take the journey, it will be a richly satisfying one that doesn’t depict Armstrong as a larger-than-life hero, but a man faithful to do his part.

His famous first words as he stepped off of the lunar module onto the moon’s surface, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind”, seem to capture him best as it speaks to his small contribution (as he saw himself), and emphasized the larger achievement of mankind.  He understood he was playing his part, but so many individuals took part in making this dream achievable that it really was a shared achievement for all of mankind.  Chazelle makes sure to capture other countries, nations, and people’s sharing in the wonder of that moment.  This would have been a great place to end the film if one was looking for a merely traditional feel-good piece about our journey to the moon.

Instead, much like the man itself, First Man emphasizes the little moments.  If Neil Armstrong was pleased with the biography that serves as the source material, then I have a feeling that he would appreciate this aspect of the film as well.  First Man stays grounded in our humanity while blasting off into space.