Caution: spoiler alert in the last few paragraph but you may not care at this point.
A Distant Personal Connection for Me
My mother once met astronaut Neil Armstrong at an event and got his autograph which she had framed for me and my siblings so watching First Man had a personal connection, even if it was distant.
My father Alex, pictured below, was involved in the first satellite that the U.S. sent into orbit, the Vanguard that blasted off in 1958 and got his picture in Life magazine and that added to the intrigue. His work is written up in an article 60 years later, Ligonier township man’s signature is still orbiting the earth.
So I suggested to my wife that we go watch First Man. Getting her to pay to watch a movie is a little easier than getting her to a casino, but she agreed to watch the Neil Armstrong biopic, starring Ryan Gosling as the engineer-astronaut and Claire Foy as Armstrong’s deeply concerned wife. My wife admired Foy’s work in The Crown that we watched on Netflix and she was eager to see the actress’ work with a Midwestern accent. The other plus for her was that it was showing at a discount theater in Highland Park, just north of downtown Los Angeles.
Getting to a movie in our household of eight –and sometimes more — is a chore but squeezed the car into a parking space off Figueroa Drive and scurried across the street, paid, and got inside in time to watch Gosling’s arduous landing of the experimental plane, the X-15.
The drama was strong as the cockpit shook and rocked and when he landed — well, there was a little something that was missing in the dramatic tension. Something went wrong, but I didn’t really know what until a comment was made that Armstrong had bounced off Earth’s atmosphere.
Maybe that’s the challenge that the film presented. Events happened for Neil Armstrong but, despite the harrowing exercises thrown at him and the death that claimed the lives of good men, a current of dramatic tension was missing.
Perhaps trying to capture Armstrong’s no-nonsense personality in a movie that was a close-up on him was part of the reason. I have friends who work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and if a movie was made about their internal lives then I could see how it might look monotone.
Peaks and valleys should exist in a dramatic work for the sake of contrast. When the astronauts made their way to the machine that tested their ability to withstand G-forces and whipped them around like rag dolls there was no build-up, no foreshadowing. The event happened and they vomited from it.
My wife said the film was morose and didn’t inspire. She didn’t even try to compare it to Tom Hanks’ Apollo 13 which she saw and enjoyed or October Sky.
And yet I believe First Man is an important film and conveys the hardships that these men experienced in order to help America reach its goal.
My Final Questions
Immediately, when the credits rolled, the two questions that popped into my mind were: they didn’t show the flag being planted and why didn’t she smile?
Okay, enough will be said about the flag planting not being shown on the moon. I get instead that he had his cancer-stricken daughter’s bracelet and flung it into the abyss and we see the planted flag hazily in the background. That’s fine, but the flag planting was momentous and capped the perilous journey. I can agree with one of my favorite opinion columnist’s today, Carl Cannon of Real Clear Politics, in his review First Man: A Giant Step for America, who wrote that the American flag was visible throughout the movie. But a small detail would have been the remedy and would have tied it together.
Here’s my fix. Too late, I know. But what if we saw Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — or was it just Armstrong — drive the pole into the lunar surface and then, as he scurries off, we see the flag more clearly. Case closed. American flag flying and not the Soviet Union’s banner.
Here’s another simple fix to something that bothered me much more than the flag.
I can understand the choices that are made between directors and actors, and I read that improvisation played an important role. Got it. But at the end — the very end — the penultimate ending — when Armstrong is in quarantine and his wife comes to greet him at the window — and they touch fingers on the glass — and they stare seriously at each other for a long time, very seriously and deeply — why, oh why — couldn’t she have given a slight smile? Just a brief upturn of the lips. And then credits.
That would have capped the journey and brought about a successful ending. But, damn it, she didn’t smile. Not at all. She looked mad and not worried. Okay, I can see in hindsight that she was processing. But at some point, in real life, she would have smiled at his coming back alive.
Here’s the fundamental flaw from me — granted, I’m a man who can brag that he spent several years in high quality acting workshop and has done a regional commercial that aired in the New York metro area and who performed in a few micro-budget films that barely had enough for catering — yes, I’m going to give my expert opinion on the technical flaw of no peaks and valleys. There wasn’t enough contrast.
The audience needs to wonder, to guess, and the main character has to be shown caught in a situation and you wonder how he’s going to escape. Along with that, you show hope, then problem and no hope, then hope again, and then no hope — and then hope once more for the final time.
Showing the Kennedy speech about going to the moon at the beginning would have made much more sense than showing it at the end — and, hey, what happened to Richard Nixon? Oh, come on. Maybe they showed the Kennedy speech at the very beginning, too, but I was parking my car. It was an excellent speech and would have framed more of the urgency of why they were pushing so hard and risking so many lives.
Years ago, after seeing the movie The Mission directed by Roland Joffe, he remarked that you can spend tens of millions in production, tens of millions more in advertising and it all comes down to one person in the audience either liking the film or not liking the film.
First Man was a tough movie to make with hard choices in the writing, directing, and acting — and I felt all were done well. But, it just landed shy of the mark. And in terms of a lunar landing, a slight miss is a big thing. A smile at the end from Neil Armstrong’s wife would have hit the mark for me.