“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer — born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow. As an engineer, I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” — Neil Armstrong
There were a lot of reasons not to go to the Moon. Just because the Russians were trying to do it didn’t mean America had to compete in the space race. With cultural upheaval everywhere you looked, the Vietnam War raging, an assassinated president, and an underclass demanding that more tax dollars go towards helping them improve their communities, our nation already had a full plate of urgent issues to solve. If you ever wonder why we did embark on a journey to the Moon, you just have to listen and remember the words of that assassinated president:
We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.
There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as of yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?
We choose to go to the Moon! 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; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.
One of the best things about First Man, Damien Chazelle’s best film to date, is that he shows us that conflict — that America was hurting at the same time it was celebrating. It remembers and echoes President Kennedy’s faith in science and his aspirations for the country. Both he and Neil Armstrong made a point of emphasizing that the Moon walk was not just about American dominance, not about staking claim on something that wasn’t ours, but instead a gesture, a call to peace. Not war.
First Man is about the big things. It’s about the science of space flight that puts you directly into a space capsule in a way that makes you feel how it must have felt to really be there. This is not a shiny-white pristine Jetson vehicle inside, nor is its ride as smooth as a gliding eponymous eagle. No. It’s being strapped in under the hood with the mechanical guts exposed, being jerked around like rag-soll as 20 tons of fuel per second ignite right beneath your butt until you pass out from the pressure. It’s sitting atop a 36-story of tower of metal and fire that rattles at a deafening pitch as it battles gravity — and then, suddenly, the shocking stillness and silence of space. Oh how Chazelle masterfully plays with sound in this film, from the lusty thunder of launch to the dead silence where all you can hear is your own breath — and only then do you remember to breathe.
It’s all about that. Of course, it has to be. This is Neil Armstrong we’re talking about here. And the first time any human set foot on the surface of the Moon. Not because it was easy, but because it was hard. But at the same time, running on a parallel track is another big question that can’t be as easily tackled. We could send a man to the mMon but we could find a cure for cancer. Neil Armstrong’s daughter died of a brain tumor at just two years old. It’s this part of the story that makes First Man more than just a movie about a man plunging an American flag onto the surface of the moon. The more you know about Neil Armstrong — how humble he was, how reluctant he was to brag about being a hero, and how, later in life, he was considered a near recluse — the more moving Ryan Gosling’s performance of Armstrong will be.
Though he stoically carries it all inside, throughout the film we watch him nearly crippled with the death of his daughter. At the same time, his inability to fully deal with her death, as well as the tragic death of his friends who died while attempting the same mission he’s about to tackle, seem to have given him a kind of death wish of his own. Not that he was reckless or suicidal, but more that he felt he had nothing to lose.
First Man is about the first man who walked on the Moon, yes. But it is also about the internal world of Armstrong himself, as the first man to advance mankind to the next level of our place in the cosmos. Chazelle takes us both places in such a thrilling, moving, unforgettable way I have a hard time believing I will see a better movie this year.
Chazelle reteams with La La Land’s cinematographer Linus Sandgren; and costumer, Mary Zophres; and Tom Cross, his editor from Whiplash and La La Land. Each of these collaborators have already won Oscars working with Chazelle, but he gets his biggest assist from composer Justin Hurwitz, again from Whiplash and La La Land. The score for First Man is one of the film’s biggest surprises. Why is it a surprise? I don’t know — you wonder, how can someone be that good? But he is. It is. Chazelle and Hurwitz must speak a similar language when it comes to music because Hurwitz seems to know exactly what the film needs at any given point. If you see it for no other reason — and there are a hundred reasons to see it since it may very well turn out to be the best film of the year — see it for the music.
Here are some other reasons: Armstrong’s wife Janet, as portrayed by Claire Foy, is a character Chazelle never forgets to consult. Corey Stoll as the arrogant braggart Buzz Aldrin, cinematography of the Earth’s curvature that will make your heart ache, and the once in a lifetime chance to be there vicariously, with Neil and Buzz, as their spider-legged lunar module touches down on the mother fucking Moon.
That anyone would decide to fabricate a fake controversy about First Man — by people who dare to call themselves patriots when they’re standing behind a president who is destroying the country at its core — is a rotten ugly shame. This film is tells one of the quintessential stories of human achievement, and it does so by at last illuminating a side of Neil Armstrong that few people have stopped to consider. In the process, he’s brought back down to earth to establish our kinship, eye to eye. For all of the ways that we live out our lives defying nature, when it gets down to it we are fragile humans whose lives can be undone by the death of a child. It confronts and then reaffirms our notions of heroism to see how, in the end, Armstrong would have given up everything that made him a legend just for one more minute with his daughter. That’s one the many unexpected and elevated places where this film takes us.
If First Man was only about the Moon landing, if it was nothing more than a display of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny finding new boundaries to break — then such a prosaic simplification would diminish Kennedy’s original lofty intentions. It would dismiss NASA’s own expansive goals for America’s space program. And, above all, it would disrespect Armstrong himself, who said to President Nixon during their famous phone call, “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here representing not only the United States but men of peace of all nations, and with interests and the curiosity and with the vision for the future. It’s an honor for us to be able to participate here today.”
Neil Armstrong made a point to phrase it that way because he knew what Kennedy knew and what all of us now know — our democracy is as fragile as we are, all the more so because of the towers of fearsome power we’re perched upon. Our goals for the future, if they are to be meaningful, must be global goals. First Man is about the America that recognized that challenge and responded to it, not the America that seeks to close our borders, instill fear in our citizens, and sow hatred and partisanship in our society.
Our achievements can’t just be one giant step for one man. First Man is a reminder of the great things we can do when we know why we do them, to remember that the space race that mattered most was the human one.