“First Man” is a dark and somber retelling of the American Space Program and the first moon landing.
In 1961, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) crash lands in the Mojave Desert in a one-man space craft that feels more like a giant tin can.
Armstrong is depicted as a moody, mercurial man, a skilled pilot with engineering training. The loss of a young daughter sends him into further retreat.
“Why explore space?” he is asked by a NASA committee.
“It allows us to see things we should have seen a long time ago,” he says.
Armstrong is picked for the Gemini program, named after the goal that two ships can dock in space without crashing, and that both were more effective to a lunar landing. “If we do that, we can get to Apollo and get to the moon,” he is told.
When one of the missions goes bad, the mission control commander incurs the wrath of Armstrong’s wife, Janet (Claire Foy in a powerful performance). When she is told, “It’s under control,” she responds angrily, “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control!”
“We need to fail down here so we don’t fail up there,” Neil tells his bosses. He is one of the strongest defenders of the space program, even after tragic accidents that call the entire program into question. At the White House, he tells a senator, “If you consider it in the context of history, we’ve made lots of progress in nearly 60 years.”
“I’m considering it in the context of taxpayer dollars,” he replies.
The film also focuses on the protests at the time, and voices like writer Kurt Vonnegut saying that it would make more sense to spread the space program money on a habitable place like New York City.
Armstrong is chosen to lead the Apollo 13 mission, and be the first person to land on the moon. As NASA prepares letters and statements for if they do not make it, Armstrong prepares his sons at home. A much more pessimistic view than Mission Control’s Gene Kranz’s “Failure is not an option” message and mantra.
The filmmakers apparently ran out of money during the film-making, because when the real Armstrong landed on the moon, he planted an American flag which has remained a fixture. The filmmakers apparently could not afford to buy an American flag. While there are fleeting glimpses of what may be the flag toward the end of the film, the moment and the opportunity of celebration are gone, regardless of whether deliberate.
The recent film “Loving Pablo” was more celebratory of the vicious drug lord than this film was of the space program, one of our most significant scientific and cultural achievements, not only for Americans, but for people all over the world.
From “The Right Stuff,” to “Apollo 13” to “Abbott and Costello Go to Mars,” space travel has been an important achievement, and the real-life brave men and women who risked their lives in the advancement of science and the human condition are nothing short of heroes, not deserving of a depiction that is cold, antiseptic and hollow.