I got to see First Man, the bio pic about Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. The film is based on the James Hansen biography of Armstrong – I recommend the book for telling a larger story film can – but its vision is wholly that of its director, Damien Chazelle. It presents a well known story from a very different perspective. In presenting a side of the story not told before Chazelle is no more able than anyone else to capture the whole epic of man’s first visit to another world, but he presents an essential new dimension. It is well worth seeing.
The film has generated controversy over its alleged lack of patriotism. Some American leaders, – whom I respect – have slammed the film for omitting the planting of the American flag on the moon. Apparently these leaders did not see the movie before they spoke. Star Ryan Gosling muddied waters with a lame defense, saying it was really about how we came for all mankind. Reality is the flag is prominently displayed on the moon event though the planting itself is omitted; to show it – with the problems encountered setting it up – would have eaten screen time without adding to the story film-makers were meaning to tell. The plaque Armstrong left saying, “We came in peace for all mankind,” is never shown.
I get the dismay. It was American taxpayers who paid for Armstrong’s trip to the moon and American people who risked and sometimes gave their lives in the effort – not the world. That said, critics need to see the movie before judgment; they are wrong.
Chazelle set out to tell a subjective story of who Armstrong was as a human being, along with others in his life who endured much and contributed more. He tells it well. The story begins and – in a way – ends with the illness and death of his little girl, Karen, followed closely by his application and admission to the astronaut program. Asked in the interview process if he thinks that death will impact his participation in the space program, Armstrong – always buttoned up and self-contained emotionally and spiritually – answers dryly that it would be illogical to imagine otherwise.
The rest of the story features a man so armored he is unable to share himself fully with his wife and two sons. That feature of his personality is all that saves his life and his crewmate on at least two climactic occasions for himself and his country. It is his superpower, but also his personal Kryptonite.
Armstrong commanded Gemini 8, the first spacecraft to dock with another vehicle in space, an essential step toward the eventual moon landing. He was chosen for his coolness under pressure; that coolness saved his life within hours of the successful docking. A directional thruster on his ship began firing randomly, sending the craft into an uncontrollable and escalating tumble. Armstrong was able to analyze and isolate the problem in the seconds remaining before he would have lost consciousness and life – for himself and crewmate Dave Scott. A similar crisis erupts on Apollo 11 – the moon flight. When a radar goes out and a boulder free landing site is elusive Armstrong remains cool until he is able to land with less than two per cent of his fuel remaining. He and Aldrin are dedicated to landing – after all the lives and treasure sacrificed to get them there – and so an abort is virtually unthinkable. Armstrong is much more temperamentally suited to saving their lives and the mission than the much more volatile Aldrin.
What neither the film makers nor Armstrong understood (at the time) was the Kryptonite element of his character. His inability to be vulnerable – poignantly illustrated in scenes with his wife, sons, and a backyard non-conversation with his close friend, Ed White – will become more than Janet Armstrong can bear and they will divorce some years after the historic flight. His analytic gift was part of the personality God gave him at birth; yet exercised apart from a relationship with the Giver, all gifts lead only to destruction of one kind or another. Neil Armstrong gave his heart to Jesus Christ some years later and – presumably – learned how to become all of himself only then. This is mentioned in neither book nor movie, but my source is his guide on a pilgrimage he made to Israel late in life. Re-married, one hopes he was enabled to love his family as they deserved while remaining Armstrong.
Critics of First Man can fault it – if they will – because, for example, it omits the conflict with Buzz Aldrin over who would take the first step. It paints Aldrin as the abrasive character he is, while omitting the force of an abusive father that drives him; it omits the Lord’s Supper served by Aldrin on the moon, and gives him no credit for essentially inventing the math that enables docking in space. The film is not about Aldrin the person, but rather about Armstrong the person. That said, it does humanize Astronauts Elliot See and Ed White – two of the men who lost their lives in the race to the moon – because they were close to Neil Armstrong as Aldrin was not. Both choices fit with the mission of the film makers.
The film captures – beautifully and fearfully – the claustrophobia, the pressure, and the titanic explosiveness of space launch and flight as no other treatment has done. As elegantly as the launch and flight sequences are handled in Apollo 13, for example, it seems as though the rockets are blasting out of hell in this one. This film is a critically important counterpoint to earlier treatments. It is well worth seeing, pondering, and praying over.
James A. Wilson is the author of Living As Ambassadors of Relationships, The Holy Spirit and the End Times, Kingdom in Pursuit, and his first novel, Generation – available at Bounty Books, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.