Movie Review: First Man (2018)
Shouldn’t it have been more fun?
I love that they make space travel seem hard, and foreign, and existential. It was and is. There’s a moment when they’re closing the metal door on the Apollo 11 capsule, with its metal handle, and I thought, “Someone made that metal handle on that metal door to lock into place, and seal in these men on a four-day flight through space, to the moon, and then back again. Human beings did that. And they did that only 60+ years after we first figured out how to fly in airplanes. My god, what a leap. What a gigantic undertaking. How monumental.”
So shouldn’t the movie have been more monumental?
The eight years “First Man” encompasses, from 1961 to 1969, are serious, driven and haunted. Also ultimately triumphant—but triumph in the minor key. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) does it, NASA does it, but to what end? A few dead friends, a troubled marriage, a month of quarantine, and many people arguing whether we should’ve gone in the first place. We get Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon” before whitey was even on the moon. Seeing the plethora of American flags, and the idiot left arguing against going (because we have so many problems here on earth), made me flash on today’s idiot right protesting the movie because it wasn’t patriotic enough. They wanted the money shot, the planting of the American flag on the moon’s soil. Without it, apparently, they couldn’t get off.
Both Ryan Gosling and Neil Armstrong have been criticized for being too emotionless, so the part seemed well-cast. Plus Gosling has worked with director Damien Chazelle before—in 2016’s award-winning “La La Land.” That movie was like the arthouse version of the musical. This is like the arthouse version of an adventure story. And I guess I wanted more adventure. Or a better story.
As is, the story is a subtle refrain on dealing with grief.
In 1962, Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, dies at the age of 2 from a malignant tumor in her brain stem. Armstrong is clearly devastated but he throws himself into his work. He’s an engineer and a pilot. For NASA? I think so but it’s hard to tell. The movie opens with him test-piloting a plane past the reaches of our atmosphere but having difficulty with re-entry and rocketing up past 140,000 feet before regaining control and landing at Edwards Air Force base. Supposedly this was legendary but it’s not clear why we see it—other than for the perspective it offers: the blue warmth of earth, the cold blackness of space.
He talks about perspective when he interviews for NASA’s Gemini program:
I don't know what space exploration will uncover, but I don't think it‘ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things—that maybe we should have seen a long time ago—but just haven't been able to until now.
To me, that perspective is: It’s just us. Whatever “us vs. them” we have going on down here, in the big picture it’s earth vs. a vast nothing. So don’t fuck it up.
In that interview, Armstrong also talks briefly about grief:
NASA official: I was sorry to hear about your daughter.
Armstrong: I'm sorry, is it a question?
NASA official: What I mean is... Do you think it‘ll have an effect?
Armstrong: I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.
That’s good. The interview is good. It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. Which is a little sad when you think about it. A movie shouldn’t hit its high point with a job interview.
During the decade, grief grows. Friends are made, friends die—including Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham). With each death, Armstrong seemed more enclosed, more driven, until he’s chosen as commander of Apollo 11, the flight that will send a man to the moon and safely back to earth before the end of the decade, fulfilling JFK’s 1961 promise. Did that promise piss off anyone at NASA? Did anyone go, “Wait, what? We have to do what by when? Are you shitting me?” That would be funny if true. But every movie treats the promise with reverence.
At a press conference before the Apollo 11 flight, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is joking around, talking about bringing his wife’s jewelry on the flight. Is the conversation a riff on Gus Grissom’s fuck-up during the Mercury program? Loading himself down with coins, etc.? Anyway, Armstrong is asked, in the same jokey manner, what he’d like to bring, and, in that blank-faced sotto-voce way, replies, “More fuel.” Party pooper.
Even so, at that moment, I flashed on his daughter’s bracelet. After her funeral in 1962, Armstrong puts her bracelet into a desk drawer, which he closes with authority, as if to blot it all out. But it's like Chekhov's gun: a bracelet shoved into a drawer in the first act will reappear in the third. As it does. Armstrong has it on the moon. And as Aldrin is bouncing around with joy, Armstrong, forever serious, glances down at the bracelet, and, as if with a sigh, lets it drop into a nearby crater. And we get closure.
Apparently it’s educated conjecture but it still felt like bullshit to me. Everything else in the movie is so grounded—ironically so, given the topic. It’s the dreary day-to-day. Then this moment. Would Armstrong really do that? On the first flight? When we didn’t really know how much of it was even possible? When all of it was still educated conjecture?
- How did they take an event oriented so strongly around risk, optimism, technology, discovery and imagination, and turn it into a moody grouchfest?
- Why did they need to turn Aldrin into a bad guy?
- Why is 30% of the movie about Armstrong’s wife and kids?
Answers in reverse order:
- Because that’s what Hollywood does. (Cf., the wives and kids in “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff”)
- I don’t know. (Although I liked this exchange, as the astronauts stare up at one of Apollo’s rockets. Aldrin: “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking.” [Long pause] Armstrong (quietly): “Maybe you shouldn’t.”)
- Because that’s what Hollywood does.
I don't mean Hollywood does “grouchfest.” I’m thinking of the daughter. I’m comparing it to “Contact,” the 1997 film starring Jodie Foster. A monumental, fictitious event—first contact with ETs—is reduced, emotionally, to Foster’s character’s closure with the premature death of her father. Hollywood seems to think we can only understand or root for the monumental by reducing it to the personal.
Even so, I did want more fun. At one point, in the mid-60s, Ed White stops by Neil’s home as he’s doggedly going over all the engineering calculations he needs to know for the next phase, and asks him down to his house for a beer. Neil begs off; then he seems to study himself. Or maybe he studies others’ perceptions of him? But he relents. “I could use a beer,” he says.
That's the movie. The movie could’ve used a beer.