First Man tells the true story of the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling). As the film shows, he got there largely through skill and determination, but also luck and circumstance.
The outlines of the story are, of course, well known, and part of the challenge in telling such a well-trod tale is making it fresh. Much of the film’s power lies in how director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren depict the events. Space exploration is, by definition, far away. Everything is seen at a distance—often a great distance—from rocket launches to the International Space Station (which, by the way, you can sign up at https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/ to get text alerts when and where the space station will be visible in your area). The ISS circles the Earth every 90 minutes and travels at about 17,500 miles per hour. I can type those numbers, and you can read them, but the facts are still difficult to really grasp. We humans walk at about three miles per hour and risk a speeding ticket going 80. To move at 17,500 miles per hour is, in a way, incomprehensible. But there it is.
Instead of depicting these fantastic events and speeds at a distance, from the gripping first scene and throughout the film we are in Armstrong’s place. We experience the disorientation of a space flight, inside a violently shuddering ship that seems like it may come apart at any moment. It’s loud and terrifying, and would make most people lose their nerve, if not their lunch. This filmmaking personalizes Armstrong’s story and, through beautiful special effects, makes it our story.
The cast is uniformly good, and Gosling’s studied and restrained performance helps set the tone for the film. Yes, he’s the titular First Man, but it’s about the science and the mission, not his personal glory. When Armstrong steps onto the moon, his face is obscured by a mirrored visor. We don’t see his face because at that moment he is us: He is human ingenuity, science, and achievement. It’s trite but absolutely true: His step is our collective step.
First Man adds texture to the social context of the late 1960s. The Vietnam war was going on, and some were asking why America should spend money on a space program with so many domestic problems needing funds and attention. John F. Kennedy replied in a famous speech, which appears in the film: “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 which we intend to win.”
First Man made me proud—as an American, but more importantly, per Diogenes, as a citizen of the world. It also, in an odd way, made me upset. It made me angry because I have dealt with conspiracy theorists who claim, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the moon landing was a hoax. Those who deny the moon landing—arguably the pinnacle of human scientific achievement—insult the integrity, hard work, and sacrifice of thousands of men and women at NASA. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world dedicated decades of their lives—and in some cases lost their lives—to make this dream a reality.
First Man is largely a character study of Neil Armstrong, not only as a pilot and astronaut, but also as a person; as a husband (to Janet, played by Claire Foy) and father who, by the nature of his work, may not come home. It’s easy to forget, with the certainty of historical hindsight, just how fraught with uncertainty the space missions were—and are to this day. The challenges of space flight are real, and remain.
There was palpable uncertainty about whether the Apollo 11 mission would succeed. All the numbers checked out. All the systems were tested and retested. But things sometimes go wrong. In 1986 it was the launching of the space shuttle Challenger in temperatures in which tests had showed a rocket booster’s O-ring would not correctly seal. Warnings were repeatedly raised and repeatedly ignored. As a result, seven astronauts died. In 2003, another seven astronauts were killed in the space shuttle Columbia disaster during re-entry after a piece of foam insulation broke off and damaged the ship.
In recent years space launches have been trivialized, commercialized, and politicized, with most missions carrying payloads of satellites for spying as well as commercial broadcasting and telecommunications. In 2001, the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, went into orbit. The following year pop star Lance Bass announced preparations to go to the International Space Station. (Both were Russian cargoes; Bass later dropped out, because of financial rather than safety issues.)
The scientific miracle of sending humans into orbit has been diminished. Each successful launch should be revered and applauded for the amazing feat it is, an example of humanity overcoming not only gravity but great odds. We have not mastered space flight, and should not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise. As physicist Richard Feynman concluded in his report on the Challenger disaster, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
First Man ranks with other wonderful space-themed films such as Contact (1997), Hidden Figures (2016), Apollo 13 (1995), and The Dish, a 2000 film based loosely on true events starring Sam Neill about a satellite dish in a small Australian town that served as a transmitter for the Apollo 11 mission. Machines didn’t put men on the moon; thousands of people did, and First Man is one of their remarkable and inspiring stories.