Are you claustrophobic? I’m wickedly claustrophobic. If you’re a test pilot or NASA astronaut, you better not be. You can’t be. The agencies test for it.
Imagine the following: You get put in an airtight suit that’s really hard to get out of. You need piped-in oxygen to breathe. There’s no unzipping to relieve yourself—you go in your spaceman diapers.
Then they jam you into the space capsule. You’re shoehorned in there, lying on your back, like in a tipped-over chair, blood rushing to your head, and then all the air-locking, sealing, and bolting starts. Bolting! You get bolted in that tiny techno-coffin, packed with dials and gauges, with massive lug wrenches.
You can barely move except to twist the dials and flip the switches. Do you know how long it would take them to get you out of there? Then the air conditioning malfunctions and you’re immediately boiling and sweating. For hours on end, before liftoff.
And what of liftoff? NASA rocket scientists are beyond brilliant, but when it comes to rockets, all you need is a smidgen of Murphy’s Law and you’ll detonate. Atomize. Poof.
“First Man,” directed by Oscar-winning Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and produced by Steven Spielberg, puts you in the astronaut cockpit like few other space movies have before, and by doing so, retells the story we all know so well: that of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) being the first man to step onto the surface of the moon.
Heretofore, cinematic renditions of our historical space venturing have focused more on the magnitude of the endeavor, and the visual magnitude of space. “First Man” is the first you-are-there, shaky-cam-doesn’t-do-the-term-justice, pitch/yaw/gyrate-till-you-puke presentation of the NASA space program to say: Here’s how tough astronauts are.
What fighter and test pilots do is a nightmare; “Top Gun” taught us that. Pilots die all the time, and we get to see what kind of heroic capacity for cool-headedness, pain forbearance, and mind control these men have. They’re all heroes. Nobody summed it up better than Tom Wolfe in “The Right Stuff.”
What astronauts do is even worse. As it was shot with IMAX cameras, it’s best to see “First Man” in IMAX, naturally. It’s a large-format topic.
But Spielberg’s touch is palpable; the human and emotional family dynamic, subtle but powerful, is the undertow. The most moving scene is when Armstrong is being interviewed for the Gemini space program, and one of the interviewers says, “We’re sorry to hear about your daughter.” (His baby daughter died of cancer.)
Armstrong says, “Is there a question?”
“Do you think the death of your daughter will affect your performance in any way?” he’s asked.
“I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it would not,” he answers.
On the moon, Armstrong drops a tiny bracelet, his daughter’s, into the blackness of a moon crater. One immediately imagines him standing back on Earth, looking at the moon, feeling that his daughter is somehow there. Talk about the agony and the ecstasy. What a life.
British actress Claire Foy, sporting an impeccable American accent, plays Armstrong’s wife, Janet, and is the movie’s heart. She brings the steely will of the military wife to bear on her husband’s inability to confront and provide any emotional sustenance to their two sons. She’s a powerhouse, and we’ll be seeing a lot more of her. And Ryan Gosling proves he can be somber and earnest with the best of them.
To offset the NASA crew scenes and Kennedy speeches, we get a brief protest scene and a reading of Gil Scott-Heron’s hilarious and simultaneously piteous song “Whitey on the Moon.”
“The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon).”
It does give one pause. Why did we spend all that money going to the moon when we could have spent it healing our myriad social woes? What the movie depicts (and again, nobody did it better than Tom Wolfe) was that the superficial aspects of the Soviet space race really had to do with checking the spread of communism.
The song demonstrates how communism’s socialist tendrils had already wormed their way into American culture. It would have been interesting to see the movie go deeper into this issue. Armstrong’s famous line, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” was not only technological but deeply political and patriotic as well, but the meaning and implications of that are beyond the scope of this film. Suffice it to say, go—in order to see the profound commitment of these former pilots to America, progress, patriotism, and peace.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Corey Stoll
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 12
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5