You know the drill: SPOILERS below.
Memories are notoriously unreliable things. I have memories of watching the Apollo 11 landing on television, but at this point in my life I couldn’t swear to you I haven’t reconstructed them from news reports and family stories. I do know that on July 20, 1969, I was 11 days short of turning 5, and my parents kept my brother and I up to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon. I remember watching the descent, and being disappointed when the engines kicked up dust, obscuring the moment of touchdown. I remember feeling restless and tired–bored, really–for a lot of it. (About three and a half hours passed between the Eagle’s touchdown and Armstrong’s walk, which happened well after my bedtime.)
Mostly, though, I remember my parents’ tears. Small Me understood this was a profound event, even if my uninformed mind didn’t understand why.
I knew very little about Neil Armstrong before FIRST MAN. After watching the film, it makes some sense: he’s portrayed as a self-contained person without a lot of interest in fame. (In the pre-mission press conference, it’s clear Buzz Aldrin was the wit who knew how to play the press, although to me, Armstrong’s honest response about wanting to bring more fuel was a much more on point.) He’s shown as focused and practical, at least about the tasks before him, but why he chooses those tasks is a little muddied. The film suggests he’s profoundly affected by his daughter’s death (as one would be), and that in part his commitment to the space program is a recognition of the fragility of life, and the importance of building a future for the ones we leave behind.
But there’s more there. There always is, with people who choose such dangerous work. And the film doesn’t really get at that. I’m not sure it could; nobody (besides Armstrong himself, who died in 2012) can say why Armstrong felt so strongly about taking such a drastically dangerous mission. One has to assume a certain amount of hubris: other people die doing this, but I won’t. That’s certainly part of the popular image of the old test pilot/NASA crews built up in books like Wolfe’s The Right Stuff: one of the reasons these guys did this job is that they were arrogant as hell.
Which is a flat, facile interpretation of human psychology, and one way FIRST MAN falls short is that it doesn’t offer us up anything else. There are a couple of allusions to Wolfe’s mythic tales of the pilots talking about the mistakes of their fallen comrades–Buzz Aldrin, poor fellow, ends up looking like kind of a jerk in this movie–but we’re told that this group, this crew, doesn’t see it that way. It’s not lack of skill that kills someone, it’s bad damn luck.
Which brings me back to why, and this movie doesn’t show me.
The truly unmissable moments are the mission recreations. (I’ll give a nod as well to the scene between Neil and Janet where she insists he talk honestly to his children before he leaves.) The initial X-15 flight has a level of realism I haven’t seen in other dramatizations. There’s noise, chaos, thin metal, shaky rivets–how did these things not get torn apart? How could anyone focus being jolted around that much? How do you land something under those circumstances? It’s breathtaking, and Armstrong’s taciturn responses as he climbs out of the plane set the stage for his characterization.
From there, though, we go straight to the dying daughter. And I think I see what the filmmakers were trying to do: they wanted a narrative thread, some kind of event the audience could connect with. A largely private man coping with the hideous loss of a young child? Who wouldn’t connect with that?
Except it doesn’t work, not as a narrative backbone. I wept buckets for that little girl, more than once, but it didn’t give me suspense or change the pacing or produce a dramatic arc. It was an effective window into a quiet person, but it wasn’t, in and of itself, a story.
It’s on the filmmakers to turn these well-known events into a tale that engages, and I think they didn’t quite do it. Perhaps in an attempt to reflect Armstrong’s reticent character, all the dramatic points–the political backdrop, the wavering public support, even the troubles of the families left behind–were left understated. Everything happens at the same quiet volume. For a movie about such astonishing events, it’s got very little dynamic range.
More than that, the overwhelming mood of the film is one of sorrow. We begin with the lost little girl, and move on to pilots dying, to fatherless children, to setbacks and disasters and small, bittersweet victories. Even the moon landing itself is played against Armstrong’s grief for his child, this magnificent accomplishment he couldn’t share with her.
They made the moon landing feel sad.
This seems, from a filmmaking perspective, to be a problem, but it’s possible that’s exactly what they were going for. After all, these are well-known events. I’m not the only person around who lived through them. We’ve seen the documentaries and the NASA retrospectives and the other, more tension-filled dramatizations. (Yes, APOLLO 13 is still a damn good film.) Maybe we don’t need a feel-good movie about the first person walking on the moon.
But I’m not sure we needed such a melancholy one.
Two other notes:
- The dramatic highlight, absolutely, was the Gemini 8 mission. I knew what happened, and I knew they both survived, and even so the entire sequence was an absolute nail-biter. That bit I’d watch again.
- As soon as the title card flashed “APOLLO 1 PLUGS-OUT TEST,” I had to flee the theater. This is perhaps a compliment to the movie. I knew what was going to happen, just as I’d known we were going to be walked through the death of Armstrong’s daughter, but this time I literally could not bring myself to stay in my seat. Rather embarrassingly I was sobbing as I ran up the aisle, and I hid in the rest room until I could pull myself together. In this case, the even-handed nature of the filmmaking just took me apart.
Featured photo courtesy NASA.gov, and yes, it’s from the Apollo 11 mission.