A thousand years from now, maybe one name from our era will persist in the historical record - Neil Armstrong. I doubt people of the future will say much more than that he was the first human to step foot on ground that is not earth, but they will likely at least say that. We have a habit of remembering our explorers, restless creatures that we are.
First Man considers Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, a blank slate onto which a character can be projected) in the 1960s and the events of his life from the toddler-aged death of his daughter up to his famous moonwalk. Like director Damien Chazelle’s other two features, Whiplash and La La Land, it’s a story of ambition. Like those films, First Man is pro-ambition above any costs, but unlike those previous film, First Man is interested in the “why” behind this ambitious man’s drive.
Making First Man about the “why” was a good choice. Armstrong was famously taciturn, the consummate professional, as much engineer as test pilot, unlike the swaggering first generation of American astronauts who pioneered spaceflight in NASA’s Mercury program. Though he had been in the Navy until 1960, Armstrong was a civilian when he applied for and was selected to be an astronaut. (That fact has always felt especially important to me – when we landed on the moon, we didn’t come as a conquering, military force; we came in peace.) Armstrong was just a man doing a job which happened to require him to walk on the moon. No, Armstrong didn’t have an electric personality. Maybe that’s why no biopics have been made of him before now.
Even when they profile more charismatic subjects, biopics hazard being boring, because if the person is well-known enough to garner broad interest, the details of their life are likely also well-known. The best biopics go the way of Citizen Kane—though semi-fictitious Charles Foster Kane may be—and plumb the depths of the great man’s heart to see what made him do what we already know he did.
Now, the hazard of going the “rosebud” route is that a filmmaker can oversimplify a complex person’s motivations and reduce him or her to a cheap pop-psychology cliche. Citizen Kane, by the way, sidesteps this danger – the point of the film is that there is no magic key to unlocking a human being’s soul. But many movies have fallen into this trap since then. First Man is among them, but at least the cliche the filmmakers chose is a compelling one. We all reckon with the death of those we love, and if we have to go to the moon to find peace, so be it.
The most remarkable thing about First Man is how the filmmakers take us to the moon. The sound design and cinematography make Gemini and Apollo-era space travel feel especially terrifying. I have a penchant for space flight movies, and they’ve always rekindled my lifelong fantasy of being an astronaut.
Not so with First Man. Riding rockets is a chaotic, cacophonous affair in First Man, full of worrying creaks and gut-checking metallic groans. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy, wide-eyed, terrified) accuses the NASA leadership of being “boys playing with balsa wood” at one point in the film, and you feel like she has a point. In another moment, a launchpad technician asks for a Swiss Army Knife (standard issue in the space program beginning in the 1970s) to get a seatbelt to buckle. It’s a moment that would be played for laughs in other films, but not in First Man, where the barrier between life and death is razor thin.
Let’s call it a metaphor. We endeavor to do great things in life though we are always a crack in the glass away from the eternal abyss. Perhaps the chance of the crack itself is what drives us, First Man supposes. Maybe so.
But I do believe that there’s something beyond the nothing we can see. I do not think we are alone on this glowing, blue orb out in space. This past weekend, I saw First Man on Sunday, but I attended a wedding on Saturday, and part of the ceremony included a momentary memoriam for the groom’s uncle who had died earlier this year. When he was near death, he told his nephew, “Well, it looks like I’ll be able to attend your wedding after all,” meaning he would finally be free of his frail, dying body and, having taken that “one small step” we all eventually take, could attend the ceremony in spirit in the life to come. Maybe so. Maybe so.