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First Man is the last movie you should see if you want a portrait of Neil Armstrong’s heroic character and a celebration of Apollo 11, the first Moon landing.
Director Damien Chazelle has chosen to present the story of humanity’s greatest technological achievement as one giant funeral rather than one giant leap for mankind.
Early in the film we see the greatest tragedy Armstrong faced, the death his two-year-old daughter from cancer. Okay, we get it, such a loss will always be with you. But we also get that the millions of us who suffer personal tragedies will, at our human best, give our lives meaning though our work. Armstrong, as test pilot and an astronaut, faced death himself in pursuit of his achievements, which made them all the greater.
Chazelle gives us his out-of-control Gemini 8 capsule and the crash of his lunar lander practice vehicle, but gives us Armstrong as a sullen depressive rather than the confident guy who stays cool under pressure and, thus, triumphs. To keep the depression rolling, Chazelle focuses extensively on some of Armstrong’s fellow astronauts who will die in accidents. If Armstrong is going to wallow in depression, the rest of us sitting in the theater must as well.
We also often overcome losses through our loved ones. Rather than showing him taking solace to say nothing of joy in his wife and two sons, Chazelle gives us an Armstrong who neglects his family. Really, Chazelle? You couldn’t give us the balance that was the real Armstrong family?
First Man earned the ire of many for omitting the scene where Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the Moon. But the landing was an American achievement that showed the world that our open system with private companies (granted, contracting with a giant government agency) could best the Soviet dictatorship with a completely government-run economy. Why not the flag, Chazelle, and throw in reading the “We came in peace for all mankind” plaque on the lunar lander to give it that universality you so crave?
What we do get is Armstrong on the Moon reminiscing over his lost daughter. Come on, Chazelle, he’s the first man on the Moon and that’s all you can give us? There’s a famous photo of Armstrong after he returned to the lunar lander smiling the biggest grin you can imagine. Don’t look for it in this movie. Nor the huge smiles on the three Apollo 11 astronauts after they’re safely aboard the aircraft carrier after their return to Earth. Nor their smiles in the parades and honors with which they were showered in the months that followed.
In the last scene, hero-hater Chazelle inflicts on us Armstrong, back on Earth after being the first man to walk on the Moon in human history, in isolation behind a glass barrier to avoid contamination, seeing his wife. Huge smiles? Celebration? “Darling, I did it!”? “Neil, I’m so, so proud of you!”? Nope. They stare at each other, stone-faced, like they’re standing over a coffin. No triumph of the human spirit here.
Achievement is not a joyless slog without even a “what a relief!” at the end. Achievement is how we acquire our rightful appreciation of our own efficacy and apprehension that we are worthy of flourishing in life. One wonders whether, when Chazelle presented First Man, his achievement, to the applauding crowd at the Venice Film Festival, he felt empty and diminished the way he portrayed Armstrong. He should have.
If you want a look at the heroes who met the challenges of conquering space, check out The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and the excellent mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. You’ll see the real humans making mistakes and making triumphs, not the depressing mess of First Man.
NOTE: Edward Hudgins was an intern at NASA during the Apollo missions.