Damien Chazelle’s film about the iron-jawed, ice-water-in-the-veins pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong is a rocket pointed directly at the distant planet known as Awards Season. It ought to do well there, as its thrilling set-pieces, strong performances, dramatic score and sweeping emotions achieve escape velocity from typical biopic trappings.
You’d think a movie like First Man wouldn’t have too many surprises; most people know that Apollo 11 landed on the moon and safely returned. (Some, like my late grandmother, think it was a hoax, but there’s not much that can be done about that.) Yet there’s a lot to rummage through in all this lunar dust. Chazelle and company make a lot of unusual choices. One of those choices got a little blown out of proportion into a quasi-controversy when “alt-right” bozos such as renowned troglodyte Dinesh D’Souza, repeated the bad faith argument that First Man didn’t show the US flag. It’s complete poppycock (I saw the movie; I saw the flag) but it is true that there is no typical, shot-from-below moment of a flagpole penetrating the alien soil in Michael Bay-esque slow motion. It’s just there, in the background.
There is, of course, a reason for this. Chazelle is a sincere film-maker, and he’s telling a story. When we are finally on the moon with Armstrong (in glorious Imax, if you have the bread for the upgraded ticket) we are with him dramatically, and his head (at least in Chazelle’s version) is back on Earth, thinking about his emotional failures and loss.
The man over the mission
Unlike Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, First Man is very much focused on one individual: Ryan Gosling’s interpretation of Neil Armstrong. Interpretation is a key word because Armstrong was notoriously tight-lipped and avoided the spotlight. His guarded nature is no mere character shading, it is a significant plot point.
Armstrong is the right man to be the First Man because he is driven, and this film suggests that his laser focus on excellence is all a way to avoid dealing with the death of his two-year-old daughter. We see him hiding his tears and avoiding his wife (Claire Foy) and fellow astro-pals whenever they try to broach this topic. It’s plausible! But it is conjecture.
Armstrong rejected the advances of official biographers for years (including James A Michener and Stephen Ambrose) before allowing, in 2002, James R Hansen the right to tell a straightforward version of his story. That book, First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, is what Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer adapted into this film and, from a legal perspective, the film-makers can use it as a launchpad for artistic licence (within reason) and still say it is based on the official biography.
Nowhere does Hansen suggest that Armstrong was haunted by visions of his late daughter. And, considering how every milligram brought aboard was scrutinised by Nasa (thanks to a prank on Gemini 3 involving a corned beef sandwich) the probability that Armstrong tossed his little girl’s bracelet into a crater is next-to-nil, and leading space historian Michael Neufeld at the Smithsonian Institute agrees with me.
The punchline is this: Armstrong was all business, or at least that’s how he liked to present himself. Maybe he did sob on the lunar surface, like Ryan Gosling does. But it’s fair to say that Armstrong would have hated this movie.
So was Buzz Aldrin, the Second Man, really such a jerk? All signs point to … possibly. He certainly had a big personality. He and Armstrong were very different in that regard. Armstrong was the level-headed technician, Aldrin had engineering and astronautics degrees. He certainly had a looser tongue and let it be known that he wished he had stepped out first, not Armstrong.
But First Man makes some interesting omissions. During a pause between touching down and exiting the lunar module, Aldrin, who was an elder in the Presbyterian Church, silently took communion. A moment of solemnity like that doesn’t really fit Corey Stoll’s performance. What does is what famously happened in 2002, when a conspiracy jackass named Bart Sibrel repeatedly got in Aldrin’s face accusing Apollo 11 of being a hoax. Aldrin socked him in the jaw and I think even the most avowed pacifists would say this guy had it coming.
First Man is definitely a pro-space exploration film, even if it does show its dangers. (Three Apollo astronauts died before they even left Earth.) But not everyone at the time (or now, for that matter) felt we should be concerned with “up there” till we fix “down here.” Among them, poet-singer-activist Gil Scott-Heron, best known for the track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. His first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a live recording of a darkly satirical proto-rap entitled Whitey on the Moon. Backed only by percussion, Scott-Heron makes a strong argument for the plight of the poor while gobs of cash were fired into space by white politicians.
A montage sequence late in First Man, when the programme looks to be spiralling out of control, includes protesters (and footage of an unimpressed Kurt Vonnegut!) set to Leon Bridges covering the tune.
Chazelle’s last film, La La Land, has numerous graceful and well-choreographed musical sequences. First Man changes things up with brain-rattling moments of interplanetary peril. Faces are shown in closeup, the camera quaking to the point of making abstract expressionist images out of the usually dreamy Ryan Gosling. Trouble comes three times in the film, aboard an X-15 rocket plane, on Gemini 8 and when Apollo 11’s lunar module (the Eagle) is moments from landing.
The first two sequences get their exposition. But in the heat of the big finish Chazelle decides to just let audiences stay confused. (One can rationalise this: it took a while until Armstrong and the others found out what almost botched the landing.) But here’s what that weird “1202 error” was all about: basically, the late-60s-era computer just had too much data flying in its face.
There are some very detailed explanations that get more specific, but in layman’s terms there were two different types of radar-like sensors that, under normal circumstances, could compensate if they were not in phase with one another. But at this moment, with the early computers (which were incredibly advanced for their time) doing so many other things, it couldn’t also “focus” on the equipment that was out of phase. So it just freaked out. Nowadays we just see a spinning wheel on our monitors and know it’s going to be OK. Back then, in the boundless vacuum of space with all of humanity watching, it could cause a little more stress.
But at that moment, with the amazing Justin Hurwitz score blasting behind glorious extraterrestrial imagery, is anyone interested in an IT lecture?