Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a thrilling, immersive depiction of NASA’s efforts in the 1960s to put a man on the Moon. Based on James R. Hansen’s 2012 novel of the same name, First Man focuses on Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the harrowing test flights, bruising crash landings, and narrowly avoided tragedies that marked his involvement in the Gemini and Apollo missions—culminating in Apollo 11’s Moon landing on July 20, 1969.
The film’s action sequences are breathtaking, giving viewers a visceral experience of the rickety, screeching, claustrophobic chaos of space travel in the 1960s. If you felt queasy at times watching Gravity, you’ll want to bring some Dramamine along for First Man, especially if you see it on IMAX. The filmmakers do an incredible job capturing the physical, logistical intensity of what was required—and ultimately accomplished—in getting humans to the Moon. And when the “Moon” moment finally arrives in the final act, it is stirring and grand. The film’s music, sound editing, and vérité cinematography make for a truly compelling cinematic experience.
But for all its technical merits, narrative intrigue, and fine acting, something feels hollow. For a movie about so massive a historical event—one most people alive at the time remember watching with bated breath on TV—First Man feels strangely mundane, almost disconnected from its story’s significance and a broader sense of spiritual meaning.
Why the Moon?
First Man makes a point of juxtaposing Armstrong’s lofty space pursuits with his quiet, normal, clean-cut family life. Armstrong is a husband and father who goes off to work each day. It’s just that some days he goes into space and has to tell his boys he might not return.
Naturally, Armstrong’s wife is at times frustrated with her husband’s semi-obsessive, always dangerous lunar ambitions. Playing Janet Armstrong is Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth on The Crown, but here sporting a somewhat odd American accent). She does a fine job capturing the stress of a wife constantly worried about her husband ending up like so many of their astronaut friends who died in the space race: Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), to name a few. In one of her best scenes, Janet confronts NASA chief astronaut Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and compares the Apollo efforts to “a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood.”
Indeed, one of the questions of the film is simply: Why? Why would Armstrong devote himself to so dangerous a task? Why would America invest so much money into the space race? Apart from bragging rights over the Soviets, what was it all for? In the film, Gosling’s Armstrong can only say, “I don’t think it will be exploration just for the sake of exploration.” Later we see a clip of Kennedy’s famous Moon speech (“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”). But beyond that the film doesn’t really grapple with the lunar mission’s raison d’être.
Achievement at What Cost?
Early in First Man we see Neil and Janet Armstrong doing everything they can to heal their 2-year-old daughter of a brain tumor. An aeronautical engineer and industrious aviator, Neil is a man who can fix almost anything. But he can’t fix his daughter Karen, whose death—the film suggests—ultimately fuels his passion to reach the Moon, whatever the cost.
Chazelle seems interested in characters who obsess, sometimes recklessly, with achieving a dream or excelling in a craft. His previous films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) tell stories of musicians and actors who place achievement above all, even if it costs their loved ones to suffer. First Man is similar. Chazelle depicts Armstrong as a man whose mission may compromise his own family, even as his family (particularly his late daughter) seems to inspire his astronaut ambitions.
In all three of his movies, Chazelle seems to ponder whether great heights can be achieved without collateral damage. Can one have a healthy family life while also pursuing world-changing greatness? At what cost should we pursue our respective “moons”? At what point should we cease our strivings for the sake of our loved ones? Are we trying to justify ourselves with our costly striving?
One of the controversies surrounding First Man is what is absent in the film: namely, the iconic planting of the American flag on the lunar surface.
But this omission (which is a bit overblown . . . the film does show the American flag on the Moon and elsewhere) didn’t bother me as much as another omission: the absence of any acknowledgement of God or faith, particularly the Christianity of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll).
The first man on the Moon may have been Neil Armstrong, but the first meal on the Moon was the Lord’s Supper. But this is not in the film.
The first man on the Moon may have been Neil Armstrong, but the first meal on the Moon was the Lord’s Supper.
We do not see it in First Man, but shortly after arriving at the moon, “second man” Buzz Aldrin said over the radio: “I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then observed thanksgiving his way, by taking out a small communion kit that had been prepared by the Houston church (Webster Presbyterian) where he served as an elder. In his 2009 book Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin describes the surreal scene this way:
I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out the communion elements along with a three-by-five card on which I had written the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” I poured a thimbleful of wine from a sealed plastic container into a small chalice, and waited for the wine to settle down as it swirled in the one-sixth Earth gravity of the Moon. . . . I silently read the Bible passage as I partook of the wafer and the wine, and offered a private prayer for the task at hand and the opportunity I had been given.
Armstrong, a deist, did not join Aldrin in taking communion, though he respectfully observed while Aldrin took the elements.
Though the U.S. government at the time refused to make public the Lord’s Supper aspect of Apollo 11’s mission, Aldrin’s faith was not a secret. On the mission’s return voyage, Aldrin read Psalm 8:3–4 (KJV) over a radio broadcast: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the Moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man, that thou visitest him?”
For Armstrong, the Moon landing was about what men could accomplish: mankind’s “giant leap.” For Aldrin, the landing was a reminder of God’s glory and mankind’s relative smallness. What is man that thou art mindful of him?
Armstrong’s “giant leap” line (of course) makes it into the film. Aldrin’s communion and Psalm-quoting do not. In fact, Aldrin is sadly portrayed as the film’s most unlikeable character.
Is First Man inspiring? Yes. But its inspiration feels thinner than it could have been, in part because the film’s sense of wonder is mostly limited to wonder at what humans can achieve. Wonder at the technical prowess that led to men walking on the Moon (50 years ago!). Wonder at the power of cinematic art to so realistically capture the astronaut’s experience. Wonder at the bravery and innovation of the Greatest Generation. These are wonders indeed.
But what about the wonders Aldrin pondered as he took communion and declared the praises of Psalm 8 in space? What about the wonder of a Creator who created the very atmosphere his image-bearing creatures learned to break through? What about the wonder of an unfathomably large universe that is still only a speck on the canvas of eternity?
Without this higher level of wonder and meaning, even the greatest of humanity’s accomplishments—even walking on a moon—can feel, in the end, somewhat pointless.