Nearly 50 years ago I was a high school student working my first summer job as a maid-waitress-cook at a rustic lodge in the Trinity Alps of northern California. The lodge was owned and still under construction by one of my high school teachers. My sister had worked there for a week and gone home, saying it was too much for too little. I stuck it out for another three weeks, until one evening when a coworker badly mistreated me. I fled the lodge and walked three miles to the nearest phone to call my parents and ask them to come get me. I then trudged the three miles back to where I had been working so they would be able to find me (life before cellphones!). It was July 20, 1969. I looked up through the trees at the starry sky, totally unaware that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to touch down on the moon. Because of my call, my father missed the moon landing on TV. He never let me forget it.
Watching First Man, Damien Chazelle’s new film with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong making his way to that historic step onto the moon, I finally understood why my father was so upset. What a glorious, terrifying, awe-inspiring moment that was, and we sense it with more caution than elation as Armstrong hesitates on the final rung of the ladder before finally stepping down onto the dusty landscape. I don’t know whether Chazelle got it right, but he certainly got it impressively — the absolute quiet of space, the broad expanse and rugged terrain of the moon’s surface, the suspenseful risk of training, the view from the cockpit. And the musical score by Justin Hurwitz, who has worked with Chazelle on four award-winning films, works perfectly throughout the film.
So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way.
For two hours the film builds to that moment when Armstrong steps onto the moon, demonstrating that it was more harrowing than glorious. So much could have gone wrong — and did, along the way. The film opens with Armstrong fighting to control his X-15 supersonic jet and land it without crashing. Training requires astronauts to practice precision tasks while spinning at such dizzying speeds that it’s a race against the inevitable moment when they will pass out. As the men are strapped into the Gemini module before taking off to practice docking in space, we expect to see the excitement and jubilation of astronauts finally realizing their little-boy dreams. Instead, their faces are subdued, focused, and even a bit apprehensive. And with good reason: despite all their earthbound preparations, there was no guarantee that they would return successfully. Indeed, numerous pilots had died during the testing phase. The space race was a grim undertaking, punctuated by moments of exhilaration, performed against a backdrop of angry protestors chanting against the enormous financial and personal cost.
Armstrong is calm, almost emotionless, as he contends with the rigors of space travel, the tragedy of a child’s death, and the stoicism of his wife Janet (Claire Foy). He can roughhouse with his young sons, but he can’t tell them he loves them. As he leaves for the moon, he hugs one son but shakes hands with the other. Such passionless focus is a strength, not a weakness, for someone in his position; Armstrong’s ability to think and react impassively in an emergency is a primary reason for his success, and Gosling portrays him masterfully.
But as an audience we want our heroes to be exciting and outgoing. My husband happened to meet Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins a few months later during their victory tour around the world. He was in Colombia at the time, and called out Armstrong’s name in his strong American English. As Mark describes it, Armstrong turned with a broad, winning smile and shook his hand vigorously before rejoining the parade. The weighty burden of weightless space had lifted for a while, and he could enjoy the gravitas of what he and the others had accomplished.
Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.”
The quietness of Armstrong’s character makes the film less compelling and may explain the reason for poor turnout on opening weekend. It’s more likely that the poor turnout was owing to the controversy that preceded opening weekend. You’ve probably heard the disgruntled rumblings about the flag on the moon being left out of the movie, so let me address the controversy right here: yes, the American flag does appear on the moon in the film. It’s distant, and it’s small, but it’s there. Rumors about the flag’s absence began shortly after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival, when audiences waited expectantly for that iconic moment. It didn’t happen, and social media exploded with boycott-laden outrage. (I don’t know whether the film was re-edited after the festival, or if audiences were simply expecting more, but the flag is definitely in the scene now.) Gosling explained in an interview that the moon landing “transcended countries and borders [and]… was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” so that’s why they didn’t include the flag-raising moment.
This is pure 21st-century poppycock, of course. Competition with the Russians was the driving force behind the space program, and the reason JFK dedicated so many billions of dollars for it. The Russians were ahead of the Americans nearly every step of the way. Raising the American flag and leaving it on the moon as a reminder of who got there first was a huge deal. It did not “transcend countries and borders.” It was the reason we were there. Chazelle and company should not have minimized it into a kumbaya moment of one-world humanism. Moreover, in his zeal to turn American exceptionalism into ordinary human accomplishment, Chazelle missed a great opportunity to make his statement — with the flag. Armstrong’s biography recounts how the astronauts struggled to assemble the malfunctioning flagpole. That struggle could have been presented as a metaphor for 21st-century American politics and the difficulty of raising the flag today.
First Man is a good film with some great special effects and fine acting all around. Jason Clarke is especially good as Ed White, and Corey Stoll is feisty as Buzz Aldrin. Claire Foy, best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in the excellent Netflix series The Crown, is wonderful as the stoic yet passionate Janet Armstrong. And with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing just six months away, I’m happy that this film has been made.