Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

First Man


Well, just like I feared, they went and fucked it up. The story of Apollo 11 is one of the greatest stories of exploration in human history, and it’s kind of surprising that it’s taken so long to tell it. I guess it has to do with the fact that Apollo 13 was a near disaster, easy to dramatize, whereas this mission came off without a hitch, other than a little jig Neil Armstrong had to do at the last minute to avoid landing on a big rock.

Technically, it is really great, actually worth seeing just for that. No big surprise, these days. The director, Damien Chazelle (of the damn good Whiplash and the masterpiece La La Land), has chosen to tell the story in almost POV style, getting the camera, and us, crammed inside those capsules that made phone booths look roomy. (Too young to recall phone booths? Just imagine an iPhone without the screen, with four glass sides, some sort of wheel instead of a keypad, a coin input like a slot machine, bubble gum and some unidentifiable glop on the mouthpiece, and a receiver with a microphone on one end and a speaker on the other, attached by a cord to the phone itself. Only the cord was usually cut.) There may actually be a little too much claustrophobia, but I can see what Chazelle was doing.

Neil Armstrong had some harrowing rides. The movie opens with the X-15 he was “flying” getting out of control. (By the way, the X-15 flew 4,520 mph [Mach 6.7] in 1967, still the world record for the fastest human-piloted flight!) It’s pretty exciting.

Then there was the flight of Gemini 8, where the capsule carrying Armstrong and David Scott began to spin wildly. They would have died if Armstrong hadn’t figured out that one of the thrusters was stuck, and evened them out. That’s even scarier. Armstrong was also almost killed when the LLRV “Flying Bedstead” lunar landing simulator he was testing went out of control. If he had waited one more second before ejecting at a dangerously low altitude, he would have burned to death.

And that’s kind of where I lost it. He is shown arriving back home with one side of his face burned, and when his wife (Claire Foy, yet another Brit playing an American) asks him what happened, he sort of mumbles something and walks off. His expression never changes.

So there it is. Ryan Gosling is a damn good actor, but he was totally wrong for a part like this. He plays it as a zombie, emotionless, expressionless, except for one very moving scene where he sobs like a baby over the death of his two-year-old daughter. He’s all alone, so no one sees him break down.

This movie was based on a biography of Armstrong by James R. Hansen. I have not read the book. It all just smells of desperation. Trying to gin up some conflict on Earth, the writer resorts to that oldest of flier/astronaut tropes: The angry wife demanding that he spend more time with his children, never showing much support for what he’s doing. And his robotic responses to these demands.

Damn, but did I ever hate Gosling in this part! He ruined it! Do I think that Armstrong was about to take off for Cape Kennedy without even saying goodbye to his sons? That when his wife lashes out, this man who has an excellent chance of never coming back, is extremely reluctant to talk to them? Shit, I dunno, but the whole thing just screams of screenwriter laziness. Maybe someone told Hansen that this is how it happened … but I don’t believe it. I just don’t.

The other terrible thing about the film is something maybe a little more subtle. In some of the DVD extras, some of the men (except for the Hidden Figures in the back rooms, they were almost all men) who actually worked on Apollo tell their stories, and one thing they all agree on. Though they were very stressed, missed meals and sleep, and otherwise overworked themselves, they all remembered the sense of joy in working in the astronaut program. And this is what they missed. They never really showed the joy of being part of the program. People sit around glumly. You’d think they were at a wake. They never say much, except for Buzz Aldrin, who comes off as a real asshole. I wonder if he signed off on this script?

Damn! Despite the really terrific set designs and ingenious camera work, they just missed it. Completely missed it. Double dog damn!