When I first saw Damien Chazelle’s First Man back at the Toronto Film Festival, I tried to count all the American flags in the movie. This, of course, was in response to the absurd fake controversy that there’s no shot of the American flag on the moon. The truth is, there are so many American flags in this movie I finally just gave up counting. The astronauts even wear the flag on their uniforms, so a flag appears in the frame for probably half the movie. Honestly, the only reason I’m including this first paragraph is just so I can say, “Please read literally the first paragraph of the piece you didn’t read,” to the “patriotic” Twitter trolls who will no doubt want to tell me about how they are boycotting First Man for the lack of American flags.
(For the record, there are two shots in First Man of the American flag on the moon. The movie does not depict the actual moment the flag is put into the ground because, according to Buzz Aldrin, it wasn’t exactly the dramatic, cinematic moment you might think it would be, “It took both of us to set it up and it was nearly a public relations disaster. A small telescoping arm was attached to the flagpole to keep the flag extended and perpendicular. As hard as we tried, the telescope wouldn’t fully extend.” So, no, there’s isn’t an hour set aside in the movie to watch Armstrong and Aldrin piecemeal a flag together.)
First Man, at its heart, is about death and overcoming the pain of loss. In 1962, Neil Armstrong lost his two-year-old daughter, Karen, to a brain tumor. This is an event that bookends the entire film and defines Neil (played by Ryan Gosling) personally, even more than walking on the moon. For Neil, that pain doesn’t go away. In an early interview, to be a part of the Gemini program, Neil is asked if the death of his daughter would have an effect on him going forward. Neil, almost always stoic, answered that it would be unreasonable to assume it wouldn’t.
Screenwriter Josh Singer was wise to focus on this. Neil Armstrong isn’t the type of person who is going to offer a series of one-liners to make his character more interesting. He’s not a “yee-haa” type personality, which is maybe why we’ve never had an Armstrong-focused movie before. What makes Neil Armstrong interesting is the personal pain he carried with him. Singer, who recently lost his father, harnessed the loss he’s still feeling and made that the overriding theme of First Man. Having lost my own father in the last year, watching Neil Armstrong cope with loss struck a nerve – because I’ve come to the conclusion that you never get over it, instead you just try and make it a part of you. And you try to figure out how to use that new aspect of your personality to be a better person. And for Neil Armstrong, he used his pain as lightning focus to safely get to the moon and back.
Along the way he loses friends. First Man recreates the details of Apollo 1, a “plugs out” test that cost the lives of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, and Armstrong’s close friend and neighbor, Ed White (played by Jason Clarke). And then there’s the specter of death surrounding Neil himself. The idea that Neil Armstrong would leave his wife and two sons, go to the moon, then come back safely sounded preposterous. The last scene between he and his family is heartbreaking. Neil is still walled-off in his emotional prison and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), forces him to talk to his sons one last time before he leaves. What must that have been like? Saying goodbye to your kids without ever wanting to admit that this might be the last time they see each other. Someone in Neil Armstrong’s position doesn’t have the luxury to think that way, but then that leaves, instead, a somewhat cold persona struggling with the line between accomplishing a mission and the devastation it might cause personally.
I’ve already seen First Man be described as “cold,” and there’s some truth to that, but that’s intentional. On the surface it is cold, but there are layers right below that cold surface wailing with raw emotion and pain.
Death is what underlying theme that drives Armstrong, but, look, I also want to make it clear that the missions we see are thrilling. And not even necessarily just Apollo 11. The film opens with Armstrong flying a test flight into the upper atmosphere that results in Armstrong “skipping” off the atmosphere into space. Right there, that could have been the end. Then there’s the Gemini 8 flight that resulted in Armstrong’s capsule rotating helplessly out of control, almost resulting in Armstrong losing consciousness right before he gets the ship back under control. Watching this scene in IMAX, with the sound whip-whip-whipping by with every rotation, is a legitimately harrowing experience.
(As a quick aside, Cory Stoll’s performance as Buzz Aldrin is something to behold. When First Man comes out on Blu-ray, I hope someone makes a supercut of all Buzz’s scenes and titles it, “Oh, Buzz, why would you say that?” since so many characters have this reaction to so much of Buzz’s dialogue. In this movie, Buzz is the, “Hey, we were all thinking it, I just had the guts to say it,” type person. It’s clear Neil and Buzz don’t like each other and it’s fascinating.)
Spoiler alert: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make it to the moon’s surface. First Man is a movie to see in full IMAX because in that first scene after Neil and Buzz open the hatch, the whole screen suddenly blurts alive filling the whole IMAX screen, the sound goes away, and for a couple of seconds you can convince yourself that this is what it would have looked and sounded like. For us, this is maybe as close as we will ever get to experiencing that moment. It’s a beautiful moment – this vast, beautiful, eerily quiet wasteland – that took so much pain and grief to finally get to this point. A point that First Man truly earns.
‘First Man’ opens in theaters on October 12. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.