“First Man” begins with a dull mechanical hum that eventually becomes a bone-shaking, jarring mixture of rattling mechanical sounds and the hard breathing of a man whose eyes are bright and blue as the horizon. Something is wrong and he’s bouncing off the atmosphere in his airplane to an uncertain fate when he realizes the problem and brings himself safely down to the cracked, decades dried mud of the California desert.
Director Damien Chazelle seems determine to portray the space program as humans hurtling along in over-priced but soundness suspect carnival rides. The danger is not just visceral reaction, a warning sign of instinct and precaution. Anyone who knows the history of the space program–both US and USSR–knows it is filled with tragedy.
The shaky camera moments and the 1960s color palette by cinematographer Linus Sandgren provide us with a window into the fear on board the crazy contraptions that fly as well as the strange comfort of a households run on traditions that are about to be questioned.
The title and Josh Singer’s screenplay are based on James R. Hansen’s biography, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.” I haven’t read the book, but as played by Ryan Gosling, Armstrong is a silent, contemplative man who survives the death of his young daughter to cancer by throwing himself completely into his work and shutting himself off from his wife Janet (Claire Foy). At one point one wonders if Armstrong suffered from survivor’s guilt.
Singer reminds us that Armstrong wasn’t just a former pilot, he was, as one person puts it, “an egghead,” a man with an aeronautical engineering degree who after being a test pilot and an astronaut, became university professor (University of Cincinnati). He’s part of the Gemini missions (commander of Gemini 8) and his survival seems more a combination of steady nerves and luck than heroics.
Of course, we’re waiting for his more gregarious companion to show up, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll). Aldrin and Michael Collins (here played by Lukas Haas) are the two men on the Apollo 11 mission who are still alive. Armstrong died in 2012. He went to great lengths to avoid taking advantage of his status as the first man to step on to the moon. Aldrin was the opposite and TV viewers witnessed some painful moments of Aldrin on “Dancing with the Stars.”
You can appreciate the sea of white shirts and white faces. I saw one black man on the NASA side, but if you’re waiting for a glimpse of the women, such as we saw in “Hidden Figures,” you’ll be disappointed. “First Man” is very much a man’s world with supportive wives sometimes being forced to demand information and, in the case of Janet, getting more cooperation with NASA than with her own husband.
The set of both the Gemini and Apollo missions aren’t the beautifully clean environments of steel. There’s a grimy and used feeling to the whole enterprise of the space capsules in comparison to Mission Control in Houston. This isn’t the Disneyland of space travel, but the cowboy dangerous ride, the carny everything-could-go-wrong-in-a-moment ride. Success bring joy and while the planting of the flag isn’t portrayed, Chazelle still gives us a slice of Americana, reminding us that there were other issues in July 1969. Civil Rights for non-whites and women as well as the Vietnam War was dividing the US just as the moon landing was uniting a television audience.
Gosling is the exact right person for this role. His Armstrong is not darkly brooding, but romantically silent and troubled. He is not dangerous, but he faces danger. When he smiles he outshines John David Whalen’s John Glenn, Glenn was another first, the first American to orbit the Earth during the Mercury Seven mission. Glen Powell played Glenn as the golden boy in “Hidden Figures,” but here Gosling is the golden boy, carrying his historic first with heavy hubris, that would eventually turn into modest Midwest dignity.
Through Armstrong, Chazelle and Singer remind us why we explore space and the information we gained through space exploration. While to us earth-bound human beings looking up at the sky, it same seem boundless, the earth’s atmosphere is thin and from space we get a different view of it and the changes that we now call global warming. It’s unfortunate that Donald Trump has declared he won’t see this film. Maybe it would have helped him understand the importance of science.
For those who look forward to space tourism, this is a wake-up call. Tourism to the moon will be filled with possible problems and horrific human costs. Mars is within reach, but we’re far away from the time period portrayed in the 2015 “The Martian.” What comes next is something like cowboys in space, where it will be brave geeks–eggheads–that take us forward.