Here at Midlife Crisis Crossover we try not to hold ourselves to too many fixed rules, but one I haven’t broken yet is: every film I see in theaters gets its own full-length entry. Sometimes they can take a while because I get distracted by other things I’d rather write about first. Sometimes shifting into overthinking mode takes more brain muscle than I care to exert. Sometimes I don’t feel like a movie needs more than a shrug and a “meh”, but I refuse to settle for a three-word entry. Sometimes I’m not enthusiastic about sharing candid thoughts on a film I thought would be much better than it was, and would rather see succeed despite my tepid reaction to it, particularly if it’s not doing well in theaters in the first place.
That reluctance brings us to First Man, the latest film from Damien Chazelle, director of La-La Land and Whiplash, two films I loved. Our family saw it back in October on its second week of release. In the past we’ve sought out spaceflight history in our entertainment as well as in our vacation choices (cf. Kennedy Space Center, the Cosmosphere, et al.). I assumed this would be one of my favorite films of the year.
it kinda wasn’t. Hence the nearly three-month delay on the mandatory wool-gathering. But I can’t get to my annual “Best/Worst of the Year” pop culture listicles until and unless I finish all the movie entries first. So here we go, checking the one missing box. Because it’s always exciting when you have to force yourself to write.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Ryan Gosling IS Neil Armstrong — Commander of the Apollo 11 mission, historic First Man on the Moon, and one of the ten most awesome Americans ever (margin of error ±8 Americans). First Man picks up with test pilot Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy from The Queen) shortly before the death of their 2-year-old daughter Karen. After that tragedy, Armstrong throws himself into his work, transitioning to the space program and wading through tumultuous days at NASA, a wide field of fellow astronauts, a bevy of endurance tests, and recurring frustration every time the Russians enter another space-travel milestone in the record books.
Eventually they got to the Moon, but the specter of that little girl haunted Armstrong all the way there.
I mean, not literally. This isn’t a Blumhouse ghost story, though that would’ve been a wild approach. Possibly inappropriate, but I know I wouldn’t be bored.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Armstrong’s teammates on the Apollo 11 include Buzz Aldrin, played by Corey Stoll (Ant-Man) as a jerk who’s so big-mouthed and insensitive that one has to wonder how he got away with this interpretation; and the underappreciated Michael Collins, played by former child star Lukas Haas, who previously costarred in Inception, The Revenant, and Lincoln as a teammate whose presence was barely noted.
The trials and tribulations of Apollo 11 itself are preceded by the film’s most harrowing sequence, the horrifying Apollo 1 pre-launch-test fire that killed astronauts Ed White, Roger Chaffee, and Indiana’s own Gus Grissom (we visited his museum down in Mitchell when I was a kid), represented here respectively by Jason Clarke (last seen in Mudbound), Cory Michael Smith (the Riddler from Gotham), and utility infielder Shea Whigham, whom I last saw in Bad Times at the El Royale and who was a great choice even though the part wasn’t huge.
The who’s-who of other actors playing real-life astronauts includes:
- Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton from the Mercury 7 team, stars of The Right Stuff
- Almost Famous‘ Patrick Fugit as Elliot See, killed in a separate experiment before the Apollo 1 crew
- Pablo Schreiber from The Wire as Jim Lovell, a.k.a. Tom Hanks from Apollo 13
- Brian d’Arcy James, hero journalist of Spotlight
- Ethan Embry, the nameless bassist from That Thing You Do!
Meanwhile down on Earth, Ciaran Hinds (Justice League) is NASA head Bob Gilruth. Behind-the-scenes trivia: wife/widow Pat White is played by Olivia Hamilton, who had a bit part in La-La Land (“Excuse me, this is gluten-free, right?”) and who married the director a few weeks before First Man hit theaters.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Space travel requires days, weeks, and months of intensive calculations
- People grieve differently; some have breakdowns, others throw themselves into their work
- We introverts can be pretty inscrutable and frustrating to deal with sometimes
- Yay America! Boo Russia!
- Taking to the internet to write, share, retweet, meme-ify, or otherwise perpetuate unfounded, ultimately lying outrage about a movie weeks before anyone in the universe has even watched it is a shameful act of ignorance and idiocy, and further supports my personal thesis that mob mentality is one of the worst fads of the 21st century and this is why people should not be allowed to form groups of any kind ever again.
- Related note: yeah, if you watch the film and pay attention instead of bellowing like a drooling cow, you can indeed see the American flag that Our Heroes planted on the moon.
Otherwise, the film is two parts standard biopic and one part amazing simulation of the moon landing rendered in state-of-the-art graphics, breathtaking cinematography, sound design that skillfully handles both the silence of a vacuum and the nerve-wracking tension of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles at top speed inside a glorified tin can whose parts and hulls and fasteners won’t stop rattling, squeaking, scraping, and teetering on the edge of collapse.
Once the Apollo 11 takes off, you realize this is what actual spaceflight felt like — none of that lens-flared Enterprise efficiency zipping along like a steel roller coaster, no hyperspace light-shows with mounted laser cannons firing at Star Destroyers and asteroid worms, no London Pops Orchestra, and no HUD sidebar keeping track of your points and power-ups. This was real; this was how it felt. It was exhilarating terror. It was one of humanity’s greatest achievements…
Nitpicking? …but first you have to ride along for the first two acts starring Silent Neil. It’s my understanding (and my wife recently read a biography supporting this) that Armstrong was an introvert. The film seems to support that as well. Once his daughter dies, he’s frequently unresponsive, speaks only when spoken to, uses the fewest words possible to complete a sentence, and focuses on his work, which is 90% scribbling numbers into notebooks. It’s not even done A Beautiful Mind style with holographic equations flying out of the screen and giving us daunting, critical mathematics writ large. Armstrong gives us and his own family the cold shoulder.
I suppose one way to avoid typical biopic clichés is by making the main character almost disappear inside their own head. Perhaps it’s accurate, but it’s extremely tough to make that cinematic. Speaking as an introvert, I can tell you we’re not much fun to stare at for two hours at a time, unless you can sneak up behind us and watch us typing fascinating things. But then when we catch you, we’ll stop what we’re doing and shoo you away because we hate that too. We’re not meant to be main characters. I’ve gotten the impression Armstrong was a humble man who, as part of a team, performed an unparalleled feat but never sought to parlay that into leading-man status. Again, nothing in the film undercuts that interpretation.
But as a film dedicated to up-close reporting of the life and times of a quiet, busy man who would rather be left alone, the result is that several stretches of First Man are flat-out boring. In our post-viewing family discussion, I tried to be charitable about this odd narrative choice and (I think?) noted the subtle shifting of viewpoint to Mrs. Armstrong, who had a family to raise and a household to manage while her husband turned into a mumbling, nearly useless absentee father without leaving his own home. As a unified front, my wife and son voted my counterpoint down in favor of “boring”. (Side note: Anne is also skeptical as to whether or not Mrs. Armstrong cursed like that in reality.)
Though several space missions are portrayed or at least referenced to varying degrees, because the film’s focus is squarely on Armstrong, the lack of generous detours for the Mercury 7 in particular or the exploits of John Glenn in general (played briefly by John David Whalen) means, unwittingly apropos of the era, that the cast of Hidden Figures are seen nowhere in this film. Not that I expected them to be, but their sidelining seems ironic (and ruefully amusing) given how many tangential connections can be found between this and other true-story space films.
So what’s to like? If someone could just take the entire moon landing sequence and some of those NASA training sequences, and isolate all that into a separate upscale-format film, that would be an A-plus experience. Maybe a little less enriched and nuanced, and I know they’ve done IMAX moon films before, but First Man: The IMAX Good-Parts Version would be a keeper and a must-see staple in ever IMAX-attached museum in the country. A recount of NASA’s greatest hits shouldn’t leave an audience impatiently tapping their feet and worrying that the Russians will get to the moon first if the movie doesn’t stop dragging its feet.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the First Man end credits, though the Special Thanks section includes a number of government agencies and living astronauts, none of whom presumably objected too loudly to Corey Stoll’s jarring version of Buzz Aldrin. I mean, okay, granted, Aldrin famously punched a guy in public once, but that guy tried denying the reality of the moon landing to Aldrin’s face. I figured he was more of an exception than the rule.