What if you were the first person to set foot on the surface of something other than Earth? What if your achievement was the culmination of years of collective effort, millions of dollars, and many lives lost? What if the whole world was watching your every move? What if you were suddenly larger than life in the eyes of your country? What if you were also a normal person?
The latest film by director Damien Chazelle (also known for Whiplash and La La Land) explores the years leading up to the moon landing from the perspective of the Armstrong family. This was such an incredibly iconic event in American and world history (no other country has ever landed a man on the moon) that making a movie about it feels like an impossible task. Chazelle wisely chooses to narrow the focus to the way Neil and his family experienced the Space Race of the 1960s and what it meant for real people to be part of it.
The movie opens with a family tragedy at the beginning of the decade. Neil (played by Ryan Gosling) and Janet Armstrong (played wonderfully by Claire Foy) are clearly devastated but also remarkably stoic and resolved. This is partly due to their generation, partly being from the Midwest, and partly being uniquely determined people. They will need this determination to endure the long hours of work and separation involved with Neil participating in the space program. They will rely on stoicism (sometimes to a harmful extent) to face the several casualties of friends and coworkers who would lose their lives in attempts to master space travel. The Space Race would ask a great deal of this family.
The strength of First Man is the way it brings the humanity of the Armstrongs and frailty of the space program to life. We get to watch Neil attempt life-threatening flights and then come home and take out the trash. Janet anxiously listens to a transmitter in their home of Neil’s correspondence with the Houston control room while the kids act out and she has to step away to parent them. We rarely think of our heroes as having mundane concerns and real emotions, and the film invites us to see them as normal people who end up being uniquely suited for an extraordinary circumstance.
Additionally, First Man gives us a window into the humanity of the US space program. Our modern view of space travel is that it is all high-tech and sleek, but in reality it was often rudimentary and experimental. Shuttles were rickety and frequently malfunctioned. On an earlier mission in 1965, Neil and his co-pilot nearly died because their craft was going haywire. The instruments they had were clueless to the problem. This was all brand new technology that was being innovated along the way through trial and error. Real people had to respond to the limitations of the science. Real people lost their lives in the process.
The majority of the film takes place during the lead up to the moon landing, which results in the audience having a deep grasp of the stakes involved for Apollo 11. The mission was not an effortless hop to victory, but a long and laborious path. For some, who might desire a film just depicting the actual moon landing, the details in focus in First Man might be disappointing. For me, allowing the lives of Armstrongs to be at the center gave me a deeper sense of gratitude for what the families involved in the Space Race invested in the helping us all reach new heights.
In an era of space age super hero films, First Man chooses to depict the normalcy and gradual progression of human advancement. One man’s moment of glory was the fruition of the profound sacrifices of countless people. In this way, First Man allows all of us to connect with the moon landing because we too are normal people, capable of making consistent sacrifices in order to be part of something bigger. It is an American story of a major milestone, and it is a shared story of human dedication to something we believe in. It invites us to consider what we care about today and what we are willing to invest in so single-mindedly. History is made up of ordinary people who rise to the occasion of extraordinary circumstances.
Note on the American Flag controversy: There has been some reporting and conversation that the film deliberately excludes the planting of the American flag on the moon. It is accurate that the exact moment of planting the flag is not shown, but the flag is shown in multiple other shots on the moon and is highly visible throughout the entire film. In watching the movie, I found the controversy to be entirely unfounded and I would urge anyone concerned about the issue to see the movie for yourself.