First Man

October 16, 2018     ARTS

This great (fictional) story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon only suffers from the same failures of expectation as the great Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Dunkirk is a cinematic masterpiece of mood, photography, and editing, never intended to be a history lesson – and immediately criticized for not explaining history, e.g. for not including Churchill or Parliament or Germans. Correct but beside the point of the director.

So, First Man is the story of the world’s most famous man working through his most private grief. As such, the film has some of the best at home family snapshots, seemingly improvised and looking like super-8 home movies. Interspersed, of course, with NASA and the Apollo teams milestone-by-milestone dangerous march to the Moon.

Ironically, so focused is the film on keeping Armstrong’s inner story at the core of the film, that we don’t actually understand much about the man himself. Besides being a great pilot and a taciturn nerd, we don’t ever see where he came from or what else motivated the man. The film opens with a near disastrous X-15 flight, saved only by the quick-thinking of the pilot. We’re immersed in the viscera of ’50s-‘60s exploration - barely adequate safety, lack of understanding of Mach-flight aerodynamics and more. All with expert creaking and booming sound design and claustrophobic camera shaking putting you inside the cockpit (this film should be seen on a big screen with surround sound).

Not that I’m ever asked, but I’d have done two things different: Start the film with the teenage Armstrong’s first solo flight in the flat farmland of Wapakoneta, Ohio; show him fully in command and let an ear-to-ear grin break out. That gives us a sense of the determination, spirit, and skill in Neil’s background. Then cut to the frightening X-15 cockpit story.

And: Ever since The Right Stuff (which this film is a more than worthy successor and perfect double feature) the in-cockpit jerky point-of-view shot is mandatory. But I would hope that one reason these guys had The Right Stuff was that even in the midst of the shaking and stress they could still read the instrument panel (though god knows how). Why not in the middle of the shaking just a couple of blink-length extreme-close-ups of steady eyes and altitude/airspeed dials to show their skills?

Gemini VIII Capsule Gemini VIII Capsule - Armstrong Air and Space Museum, Wapakoneta OH

All that said, mere details to discuss compared to the fun and majesty of the film, culminating in a great sequence at last on the Moon’s surface. There’s a great Searchers doorway shot as Aldrin and Armstrong opens the LM hatch and the camera pushes through to a beautiful vista of “magnificent desolation”. As mentioned, the so-called controversy of the film is beside the point as instead of basking in the explorer’s conquest or scientific experiments, we spend some quiet minutes with Neil as he comes to peace with himself.

(Again, sorry for my editing here - we do know that he brought a piece of cloth fabric from the original 1903 Wright Flyer to the moon as a token of history but also as a native Ohioan; wouldn’t that have been an equally affecting additional personal touch to show? (Actual opening shot would then have to be ‘Dayton, 1940’ with a young boy Neil visiting theWright Flyer exhibition))

That emotional moment to end the film explains the choices made by director and screenwriter. It’s a great choice – but there are so many stories to tell about this, one of the greatest achievements of mankind.