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.