When setting expectations for a movie, it’s important to note what it seems to emphasize. What is the movie about, not just it’s setting or it’s plot, but what does it focus on? What does the movie find important over everything else? In First Man, we can find our answer in it’s title. This is not a movie about the moon landing, this is not a movie about the space program. This is not a movie about science, or history, or America, or any of that. This movie is about the man himself, Neil Armstrong. This is a movie that seeks to understand the man who first set foot on a world beyond Earth, and what personal motivations brought him there. In this sense the movie is a great success, never painting Neil as a dramatic figure or making him more exciting than he was. This attempts to truly paint a portrait of the man himself, and by doing so in such a minimalist fashion, it is probably more accurate to reality than most movie-going audiences are expecting when they go to a film like this one.
Despite being a biopic first and foremost, First Man obviously needs to give us backstory and setting in order to fill in the details of Armstrong’s life. It begins immediately prior to him joining the Gemini project at NASA, and right before this happens his young daughter succumbs to a terminal disease. This is an event that Neil carries with him through the entire piece, never quite letting it fade into the background despite all of the excitement and tragedy that is occurring around him. The deaths of his fellow astronauts in the experiments leading up to Apollo 11 only serve to remind him of the death that started him off on this ambitious journey. It doesn’t force that issue either though, it keeps a very careful balance between letting us see into Armstrong’s mind, and letting us experience the world around him like he is. Obviously the moon landing and the events leading up to it are exciting things, especially for someone like me that is obsessed with space travel and mankind’s ambition for the stars. Through all of the technical talk and exciting action scenes, we are reminded of the cost that NASA had to pay in order to make this happen, financially, politically, and in human lives. We are meant to consider, is this all really worth it? We see the tragedies as they happen, we see broken families, multiple funerals, protests, and we’re meant to ask ourselves whether what we’re seeing is really worth what we’re getting out of it. It is in this way and many others, that First Man is not the Pro-America, patriotic, jingoistic, uplifting picture that some think that it should be. It doesn’t ignore the concerns of the public, it presents them without bias and attempts to let the audience answer those questions on their own. In another way though, First Man actually is the inspirational movie that America needs in this time of strife and division. As much as we like to remember what the “old America” was like, it’s a reminder that even back when we were achieving our greatest goals, we still had hatred, anger, pain, and suffering running through the undercurrent of this country. We like to pretend that things used to be all united and beautiful, but in the reality that we get to see here, people outside of NASA are completely unconvinced of the value of a moon landing.
It is in this light that we get to see Neil Armstrong, played in an incredibly reserved manner here by Ryan Gosling. Some people will take issue with his portrayal, because here he is not the prototypical American Hero that some people see him as. He is a reserved, quiet man, who speaks only when needed. He loves his family, but sometimes retreats from them when he doesn’t know what to say. He is a man who cannot help but shut himself in his study and weep as his home is filled with people mourning his daughter. He doesn’t make speeches, he doesn’t save the day, he doesn’t do anything that seems to make him special. And because of this, Gosling’s performance is being regarded as boring, or perhaps dull. But what I see here is something different, and something incredibly important. First Man is in fact a story of an American Hero, but it is also a refocusing and redefining of that idea. The true American Hero in this story is a man who had a life, a lot like the rest of us do, filled with personal failings and tragedies, filled with people who love him and people he can’t stand, filled with long years of tedious work. It is the culmination of this life that led him to the Moon, not anything that he has that we don’t, but a determination to live his life in a manner which befits his ambition. When we attempt to mythologize people like Neil Armstrong, we over-simplify his journey and his struggles. We turn him into a slogan, or a flat, 2-D image of a man that had a dynamic, 3-D life. In doing this, we actually make him and his accomplishments less patriotic than we are attempting to make them. Especially in today’s America, the thing that we should be telling each other, is not that our country used to be full of great men and that they’re all gone now. What we should be telling each other, is that truly anything is possible when you try. Neil Armstrong is, in his true personage, what America needs to see right now. He was never a superhero, and that was never what we needed him to be. He was a man, like the rest of us. Yet despite his mortality, his failings, his unremarkability, he was the first man to ever set foot on the moon. He will forever live in history, a true American Hero, an embodiment of the idea that it is not about who you are or where you come from, it is about how hard you work and what you accomplish.
His accomplishments, and the accomplishments of the many, many people who made the Apollo missions possible, are also on showcase here in First Man. Despite a fair amount of the film being focused on Armstrong himself, of course we need to be witness to the actual moon landing itself. There are two sequences set in space that are definitely the most exciting, and again by mostly limiting the perspective to Armstrong’s, we see exactly how insanely difficult these tasks really were. In the first scene, we see Gemini 8, where NASA was attempting to test the docking capabilities that would be crucial as part of their plan for the Moon landing. Even before things go wrong, we get a sense of how insanely difficult this all must be from the perspectives of the astronauts. For the most part all we see is what they see, which is restricted to a few tiny little windows, and with everything else needing to be read from instrument panels. We see the astronauts trying to talk to each other calmly as their craft spins out of control, we see Neil doing mathematical calculations on the fly as they search for the craft they were supposed to be docking with, and out of all of this I truly got a sense of how insane these missions really were. I had seen video of these sorts of things a million times, but never had I gotten an idea of what it was like inside the craft itself, dealing with having to make last-second changes in such a calm manner. The crowning jewel of First Man is of course the Apollo 11 mission, which serves as the movie’s finale. Even before the launch took place, I was floored by the direction that made this moment so moving. As preparations take place around him, we get a close up of Neil’s face, his eyes pointed straight up. The camera cuts to show us that from where he sits, he can just barely see the Moon through the tiny window on his craft. When it kept cutting back to Neil’s eyes, it made me more and more emotional each time. His focus never faltered, never wavered, never so much as moved an inch. Even as the craft took off, and his body was shaking like mad, his eyes were pointed straight at that tiny point in the sky, as if his entire being was repeating over and over, “I’m coming for you”. Step-by-step we are taken through the moon landing, feeling the tension and excitement that Neil and Buzz were feeling, even though we know of course that they succeed. The moment that Neil actually gets out of the lander is a surreal one, the film does an excellent job getting across just how alien the moon must actually feel. Every time it cuts back to Neil’s point of view, and we see the strange lunar surface that seems to fade into the void, my heart sunk a little bit. It’s actually a little scary seeing something so far outside your own experience, when it isn’t dressed up with sci-fi or action film flair. By mostly staying with Neil, and not constantly cutting back to Houston or to his wife, again we get a very clear picture of what this entire experience was like for him as a person, instead of just boiling the whole thing down to a plot point. Regardless, the entire sequence was incredible, and no words I could use can describe it accurately.
The final moments of First Man I think are a perfect encapsulation of the message the film attempts to get across. We see and hear the joy from around the world, as we feel a sense of global accomplishment, saying to ourselves “We did it!” even though we had nothing to do with the event itself. It is a pride that we are allowed to feel because we collectively have produced people like Neil, and we as a species know that the first person to walk on Mars is now walking among us. No matter what his nationality, he is human, just like the rest of us. And to reflect back onto the moment on the moon, when Neil drops his daughter’s childhood bracelet, after quick googling I have confirmed that this is an act of fiction. It is a hopeful one though, it is a plausible one. Even Neil’s own sister says that she hopes he took it up with him. Because Neil Armstrong was human, a man with fears, doubts, personal failings, and past tragedies. Despite all of this, he was the first of us to take a step beyond our home, our first captain in our inevitable collective journey through the stars. Even so, he was still just a man, a man who missed his little girl more than words could ever express.