Disclaimer #1: Up front, this post of full of SPOILER ALERTS. So, if you haven’t seen “First Man”, stop reading now. If you have, please read on and comment below.
Disclaimer #2: I can’t believe I have to say this, but please – my reaction to this film has NOTHING AT ALL to do with the ridiculous Flag Planting Kerfuffle™. If you think it does, you’re wrong. If you have issues with the actual event of planting the US flag during the Apollo 11 lunar landing scenes, then that’s your issue – not mine. The flag was clearly seen on the surface of the Moon next to the LEM. So just stop it.
I wanted to like this movie…
I really really did want to like this movie. When the trailers started showing up in the theaters and online… wow — this was going to be great!
The buzz about the production values, the level of excitement building among my space friends, even knowing that a few of them had actually been contributors to various sections … this was going to be amazing, perhaps “Apollo 13” territory!!
So, leading up to the actual release date, I had nothing but excitement and anticipatory feelings about getting to sit in the theater and watch what could be the next great Hollywood-produced space movie. Given that the subject matter, Neil Armstrong, was a semi-mythical central character of US Manned Spaceflight, I had nothing but the highest hopes walking into the theater.
Center row, center seats? CHECK.
Let’s do this.
Again, a reminder – THERE BE SPOILERS HERE.
Okay, so the movie starts … and it’s a vibration-fest before you realize that, abruptly, you’re in the cockpit of an X-15 with Neil Armstrong. It’s amazing. It’s cramped. It’s more than a little bit scary. It’s a major moment in Neil’s life and, indeed, in the long history arc of US Manned Spaceflight.
Except that’s not made even remotely clear to the audience.
I knew it.
Space geeks like me knew it.
I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of audiences didn’t know it.
I think, ultimately, this is where this movie failed for me — made for the people who KNEW Neil’s backstory already, they didn’t need the setup for “Who is this guy, and why is he important?“. Much less the history of what made Neil who he was.
If the entire (awesome) sequence of the X-15 flight (one of many, btw, but that wasn’t made clear) was presented, then had a brief comment of how and why they were important was added afterwards… it would’ve brought the purpose of that harrowing and life-threatening event so much clearer. Otherwise, the audience is left with “why did that just happen and why did he randomly land in some unimportant desert?“, rather than a reflection of “Thank God we use these dry lakebeds for these X-15 landings – they’re so important for furthering our knowledge of controlled exo-atmospheric rocket flights!”
But – an amazing sequence, with adrenaline pumping, had been served up as a beautiful hanging fastball right over the plate, ready to be smacked out of the park in a home run of perfect exposition.
Nope. We get a grumbling Chuck Yeager (I recognized him, but the movie didn’t make it clear how important he was) talking about Armstrong’s “multiple incidents in the past month”.
Well damn. That’s important. Let’s hear more about that and how they affected/shaped Neil Armstrong to become a better test pilot, astronaut, or human being!
Look! He’s smiling!
Not a watery eye to be seen!
The meat of this movie, to be sure, was the attempt at portraying Neil as a human being beyond, perhaps, the standard astronaut caricature of “The Right Stuff”.
Armstrong was a famously “non-celebrity” persona in the years after the Apollo program, not wanting to participate or be a central media figure. In full disclosure, I did not know Neil Armstrong personally – I was fortunate to see Neil, Buzz Aldrin, and Mike Collins at the Johnson Space Center during the Apollo 11 20th Anniversary celebrations in 1989. (Side note – we’re about to celebrate 50 years next July!)
But, when you take someone like this – albeit a quietly personal man with many deep thoughts and experiences that formed his reputation – and dilute him down to a portrayal as a completely unlikable human being, formed almost exclusively by the loss of his young daughter, seems like an oversimplified and too-easy solution. In reality, like all of us, Neil’s background was far deeper than Karen’s loss.
And that’s miss #2 for me – Neil’s background and his human reactions to all of the events around him.
The movie glossed over SO MUCH of his life experience that truly made him who he was, in order to spend so many awkward closeups of Ryan Gosling’s watery eyes and fluffy eyelashes.
So. Many. Watery. Closeups.
Nothing was even said about Armstrong’s education (other than “he’s a good engineer”) nor his military pilot service. Nothing was said about how he got into the test flight program – just “bam, here’s Neil flying the X-15 and almost crashing” … and aforementioned Yeager grumble.
Lots of events that led up to Neil’s selection as Apollo 11 CDR were not even mentioned – there was nothing really that gave the viewer any indication as to *WHY* Neil was selected for this incredible responsibility. The actual selection process and rationale for selecting Armstrong was truly fascinating… and left completely out of this movie.
When Deke Slayton (best character of the movie, IMHO, played by Kyle Chandler) told Neil of his selection as Apollo 11 CDR, I think the paper towel dispenser hanging on the bathroom wall showed more of an acting response than Gosling did.
Neil’s actual response to this high honor and amazing historical event (documented several other places) was far more interesting – still reserved, per his personality, but not the blank Gosling stare.
The interaction scenes with his boys, as he was trying to leave the house on the way to the Cape for the Apollo 11 launch (symbolic to leaving Earth, I guess) was just so difficult and awkward to watch. His boys, in interviews, have recalled this scene themselves – but remember their ages at the time of their recollection. Perhaps this was the director’s intent – showing Neil as a father, from the perspective of his sons. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but in my opinion – it did nothing but damage to the Armstrong persona.
Dealing with the loss of the Apollo 1 crew (especially to his friend and neighbor Ed White) was stoic and – perhaps – the best “non-reaction” reaction in the movie. An emotional outburst in the White House in the 1960s upon hearing this news would have not been appropriate. But, when looking down to see that he had shattered a wine glass in his hand, there was not a single iota of emotion in another closeup of Gosling’s lifeless, albeit watery, eyes.
WE CHOOSE TO GO TO THE MOON...
Did I like ANYTHING about this movie?
HELL YES I DID.
There is a lot to like — the spacecraft and spaceflight visuals were stunningly presented. Granted, I think they went a bit overboard with the VIBRATIONCAM™. It ventured into JJ Abrams lens flare territory.
It just seemed a bit unrealistic that there had been so much vibration, during a nominal ascent, that the crew would not have been able to see or read any dials or indicators, much less select the correct buttons/options, had their vision been as bad as depicted.
The overuse of this camera technique actually took away from the unique danger of the Gemini 8 experience, especially in the almost-fatal rotation that Armstrong and David Scott found themselves. That sequence, where the projected feeling of disorientation, almost blacking out, and general helplessness was exquisitely filmed.
The actual spacecraft builds were spectacular. The Gemini and Apollo craft were like stepping back in time. Kudos to the designers – they really did a great job here.
The filming of the desolation of the lunar surface? Breathtaking.
That was probably one of the closest-to-actually-being-there experiences I think I’ve seen.
The care in making the stark, unfiltered lighting along with the surface details was one of the best scenes of the movie, and worth the price of admission. Filmed in IMAX, the team did an amazing job here.
I loved it.
I’ll also admit I loved the final crater scene with Armstrong. While there’s no evidence this ever happened, and honestly enough circumstantial evidence to say it didn’t, I’m okay with this poetic license. I thought it was a beautiful “closing of the circle” on what was one of his defining life events.
Now – having said that – I have to bring up one of the most egregious technical flaws of the movie, and one that I’m more than a bit disappointed wasn’t caught.
During the pre-lunar landing scene, when Eagle was still docked to Columbia. Collins radios that he was “maneuvering to undocking attitude”. There was then an audible and *continuous* rocket noise while they did the rotation, with a simultaneous rocket noise shut off precisely when the rotation stopped.
That’s not the way Sir Isaac defined things.
There should have been one sound of the “pulse” at the beginning of the rotation maneuver and one “pulse” at the end, not a continuous “roar”.
Again – I would hazard a guess that 99% of the general audience wouldn’t have caught it, but still. Ugh.
So … in summary. I walked out of the theater after the credits rolled, truly let down by the experience.
Hopefully others will be able to look past my issues with it and enjoy for themselves. I really hope so.
Any good publicity for manned spaceflight is good for the program.
But, unlike “Apollo 13”, “The Martian”, “The Right Stuff”, and a host of other space movies … I doubt I’ll ever watch this one again.
I was that disappointed.
What did you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Be kind. 😉
LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW
Husband, Father, Grandfather, Space Cadet, techno-geek…