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First Man •••1/2

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenplay: Josh Singer, James R. Hansen
Biography/Drama/History, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: October 12, 2018



Scott, is this the docudrama of the husband to a female president?

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I thought it was a biopic about Eve’s husband. Looks like we’re both off course. Let’s recap.

It’s 1961 and we’re introduced to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). He’s an aeronautical engineer and X-15 test pilot. He’s also a doting husband and father. We see a montage of him cradling his two-year-old daughter Karen as she suffers with brain cancer. Ultimately, she is laid to rest and his superiors wonder if his piloting has suffered. He’s doing his best to cope when he gets the chance to apply to NASA’s Gemini program – an answer to the Russian’s Sputnik satellite.

Meanwhile Neil and wife Janet (Claire Foy) have another baby, a son. Janet and the two sons have some trouble coping with the dangers of Neil’s job along with his long absences when he goes on missions. When piloting a Gemini flight, Neil’s space capsule spins violently out of control and he nearly dies, but his skills save him and impress his superiors. He is not in line to become the first man to walk on the moon until a terrible fire accident kills three Apollo astronauts just before liftoff. These losses take a terrible toll on Neil.

Scott, I was afraid that First Man would be a rehash of the epic and fantastic movie The Right Stuff. Unfortunately, I was not disappointed. That is to say, this movie was not nearly as entertaining or exciting as its predecessor. The first problem I had with this film is Ryan Gosling’s unblinking stoicism – which is his acting trademark. As Armstrong, we never get a sense of what’s going on in the man’s mind. But, after doing some research (which included reading the movie’s source material, Armstrong’s official biography “First Man” by James Hansen) I realized Gosling’s non-emotive method uniquely qualified him for the role.

It turns out Armstrong never let on to anyone (not his wife, children, or closest coworkers) his inner turmoil over the loss of his daughter. Only in interviews and emails with biographer Hansen did Armstrong share how deeply he felt at his daughter’s loss. The challenge, then, for filmmakers was how to share this deep despair with the audience. And, sadly, they were not able to make it work.

Other problems with this film include the fact that the story spans nearly ten years of Armstrong’s life. Any biopic has this challenge – it’s hard to squeeze a person’s life into 120 minutes. Usually, the film will focus on one event that exemplifies the hero’s entire life (see our review of 2017’s Marshall). Another problem with this film is that it has to fill in the blanks that Armstrong and others left out. For example, the film resorts to making Buzz Aldrin look a bit like an asshole so that Armstrong can correct him (e.g.: when a fellow pilot dies in a plane crash, Aldrin quips “Well, we all know he wasn’t much of a pilot. That’s why Deke cut him from the program.” To which Armstrong replies, “I haven’t read the report, I wasn’t on the ground there, and I wasn’t in the cockpit. So I can’t make that assessment.”).

And there is also the controversy leading up to the film’s release surrounding the iconic shot of Armstrong unfurling the American flag on the moon. Many patriotic Americans felt it was a slight to American exceptionalism that our (perhaps) greatest achievement was snubbed by not showing Old Glory on the big screen. I have to say that I looked for pictures of the American flag on the screen and it was there, occasionally. And there were a couple long-view shots of the flag against the backdrop of the Lunar Excursion Module. And I must say, as a person who witnessed the landing of Americans on the moon at the tender age of 7 years old, it should have been there. That image is not just a matter of personal pride, but also of history. But, it’s not a reason to skip the film.

Greg, First Man is a meticulous portrayal of Neil Armstrong’s hero’s journey, depicting with grim precision the razor thin line between an astronaut’s success and his fiery death. Armstrong separates himself from other astronauts by being a smart decision maker who is cool under pressure. Ironically, while this emotional detachment is a strength in his line of work, it wreaks havoc on his personal life. Armstrong is portrayed as emotionally stunted in his family relationships, yet we sympathize at his numbness as we watch him experience the loss of his young daughter and then one astronaut friend after another. Perhaps you’re right, Greg, that Ryan Gosling was uniquely suited to this role.

This film truly drives home some important telltale characteristics of the “adventure and explorer” hero type. Heroes of this kind display remarkable courage, resilience, intelligence. First Man doesn’t just glorify astronaut heroes; it wisely (and briefly) shows us counter-evidence to their heroism by raising the question of whether all the expense and costs of the race to the moon were worth it. This question is worth pondering, and I don’t claim to have the answer.

Scholars’ definition of heroism includes the notion of risk and sacrifice, and it is abundantly clear that Armstrong and his colleagues take heroic amounts of risks and make huge sacrifices. Heroism is also defined as actions devoted to furthering the “greater good”. This film subtly raises the issue of whether all the money spent on the Gemini and Apollo programs could have been better used to feed the poor and assist with domestic programs. Why did we really need to beat the Soviets to the moon? Was it worth it?

First Man is a good movie, but not great. While Neil Armstrong, no doubt, is worthy of such tribute, he is, perhaps a bad subject for the big screen. For big-screen entertainment, you need “bigness” – big personalities, big explosions, big chases… big, big, big. Armstrong just isn’t a big personality. In fact, he spent his life after NASA avoiding the spotlight. If this had been the story of all the Apollo astronauts and the sacrifices they and their families made in the pursuit of American exceptionalism, First Man would have been a much better film. I award it 3 out of 5 Reels.

But as a hero, they don’t come any bigger than Neil Armstrong, or any of the Apollo astronauts. As individuals, they exemplified everything we value as Americans. The Apollo program, with Neil Armstrong and his peers as figureheads, invigorated a national interest in space and technology that reverberates to this day. And as presented in this film, Neil Armstrong is the embodiment of the quiet yet sensitive hero that bears the burden of the world on his shoulders while stoically keeping his own inner pain in check. Neil Armstrong gets 5 out of 5 Heroes – but only because we can’t go higher.

Finally, the archetypes are in play here. I was pleased to see real BRATTY KIDS portrayed in this film. And there were the SUPPORTIVE HOUSEWIVES and NO NONSENSE LEADERS. I give them 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

Greg, First Man is a riveting cinematic achievement, giving viewers a visceral firsthand account of the supreme challenges inherent in the life of an astronaut in the era of early space flight. Neil Armstrong is an American hero, no doubt, and this film gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the challenges he faced in his personal life as well as the harrowing challenges of occupying the role of an early space traveler. First Man is a must-see for its remarkable historical storytelling. I give this movie 4 Reels out of 5.

Our hero Neil Armstrong is a flawed individual whose stoicism hurts him at home but propels him forward (sorry, bad pun) in his career as an astronaut. He adheres to the old-school male stereotype of the man who needs to “suck it up” rather than feel his feelings. One could say that it served him well to enjoy clear, emotion-free thinking when the going gets tough, but this emotional numbness is a disaster for him at home. We never do see Armstrong transform, although we do admire his cool-headed leadership in times of disaster. His heroism merits 4 Hero points out of 5.

The archetypes here are few yet powerful. We have, of course, the archetype of the adventurer and explorer here. There is also the classic and longstanding stoic male figure archetype. At home, Neil’s wife Janet plays the archetypal stay-home mom who does all of the heavy-lifting involving in keeping the family intact while Neil is away at work for long stretches of time. I give these archetypes 3 Arcs out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

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