How Close to First Man is Armstrong’s Real Story?

Hi. My name is Neil Armstrong, and that’s all you’re going to know about me.

First Man is a surprising film. It’s surprisingly devoid of excitement, I mean. Instead of a rousing tale of man’s journey to the moon, it focuses narrowly on life through the eyes of the taciturn and insular Neil Armstrong.

He’s a strange choice to be awarded the honor of the first person to set foot on another world. Buzz Aldrin was right behind him, but I guess being the second  man lacks cache. Even in Apollo 13, Jim Lovell and crew joke around, saying, “Armstrong? Really?”

Laying aside the fact that this man is very personal, I’d have thought he would have gone home and met with colleges, children, UN Summits, or otherwise directed his limelight to the service of NASA’s educational promotion. Nope. Not his gig.

This is a man that after an entire bladder-busting 2 & 1/2 hour movie, remains a cipher to the audience. Clearly, the had the Right Stuff to be a test pilot and astronaut, but had the personality of a Stoic.  And, well, the movie reflects this. Who was Armstrong? Did he even care about his wife…or the moon, even? All I can tell is he deeply loved his daughter, who sadly died as a toddler from brain cancer.

First Man spoilers ahead!

If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably wondering about Karen’s baby bracelet. Did he leave it on the moon? Is it still there, a testament to loving and grieving and family? It’s been a topic of some speculation. It’s known Armstrong deviated a bit from his walk plan, and stood over the Little West Crater for a few minutes. The movie chooses to show him definitively tossing the precious bracelet into the crater. If he did this, I hope he was able to excoriate some of his demons and find a measure of personal peace. Because, well, walking on the FREAKING moon seemed, to him, a casual matter. Compare his still introspection on the Sea of Tranquility, versus Aldrin hopping joyfully along the surface. Sometimes I think singularly amazing moments are wasted on some people.  I don’t dislike Armstrong, but have to still wonder, like Lovell and crew:  WHY HIM?

So. Does First Man hew closely to what we do know of Armstrong’s life and vision? This excellent article from History Vs Hollywood covers the issue in a very readable fashion — no need for me to repeat it here.

Suffice to say the director kept the biography as rigorously accurate as possible. We can feel the authenticity and sincerity bursting through the film. The science was spot on, but the characterizations of the astronauts were a bit one-sided (ie — how Armstrong saw them), making for a possibly unreliable narrator. For example, Aldrin comes across as a somewhat offensive jerk in the film. Was he really? I imagine these things are in the eye of the beholder.

But back to the bracelet commentary — James Hanson, author of Armstrong’s autobiography First Man, reports that after many hours of personally interviewing him, he’s sure Armstrong left something behind.  He never said what, or admitted to it, but it’s known he did report his personal manifest list as missing to NASA. Then, he later donated his manifest to Purdue University, so it wasn’t so missing after all. There’s a lineage for astronauts leaving things behind. According to this article:

“For instance, Charlie Duke, who in 1972 became the tenth person to walk on the moon, left a photo of his family there, according to Singer. Buzz Aldrin brought a pouch that belonged to the Apollo 1 astronauts as a memorial to them.”

Armstrong’s manifest will be sealed until 2020, so we don’t have too long to know if Karen’s bracelet was on the list. His family hopes and believes he did leave that memento behind. We’ll see. It seems like a logical choice to me. But it did make for a nice bookmark to the movie, either way.

Last thoughts for First Man: It doesn’t feel like a prequel to the (IMO) far superior Apollo 13 at all: keep in mind it’s NOT an adventure film. There are exciting moments for sure, but most of the runtime is silent and clouded with grief. I did enjoy the space scenes, what we got of them. But we also had to endure a lot of sorrow, silence, and unpleasantness between the space action. That might have highlighted the power of the rocket scenes, which were undeniably cool. I wish the movie had more of that powerful imagery.

Should you see First Man in the theater? I saw it in IMAX, which made the rocket scenes rumble, and the quiet scenes more tense. If you’re a real fan of NASA and the space program, it’s a must-see,  just to experience it properly. For everyone else, wait for the DVD.

 

Jill Florio

Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)

Movie Review – First Man

 

Movie Review - First ManFirst Man is a thoughtfully crafted, well-made film that a lot of reviewers seemed to love. Ryan Gosling definitely dove into the part. The nostalgia of returning to the 1960s was neat, and the scenes in actual space were close to brilliant at times.  It felt like being there, as the Saturn V thundered out of our atmosphere. There was a sense of transcendence, viewing the Earthrise from orbit, and it was a sight that made even the  generally reticent Armstrong crack a big old smile (more on him, later). The space shots looked very real, albeit coupled with a slightly grainy film quality, making it feel more like the 60s.

The space images alone made seeing this in IMAX worth the extra price. I wish there were more scenes in space and on the moon, but you can’t have everything you want in a movie, now can you?

Some thoughts: a lot of the purposefully jiggly hand-held camera work was distracting, especially in the many long, quiet interpersonal scenes. It underscored the “documentary” feel, but I noticed it too much, taking me out of the moment.

I understand the story is supposed to be a deeply personal and intimate story of one man’s journey to overcome his emotional pain, and eventually do something extraordinary.

The “one man” in question is Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) –the first man to walk in the moon. It was an amazing moment for mankind, but make no mistake: this is not an exciting movie. It’s a slow burn of a tale, and takes a long time to get anywhere. We spend relatively little movie-time in space, and barely any on the moon. For a 2 hour and 20 minute film, there’s surprisingly little story to tell.

From the perspective of the film, it seems like the moon landing was incidental to the plot, instead focusing quite narrowly on Armstrong’s inability to move on emotionally from the death of his daughter (and his colleagues in the space program). It seemed to me that 1/3 of the movie was devoted to extreme closeups of Gosling’s face, who did a great job showing almost no emotion behind his cold, blue eyes. I saw these close eye shots of him so many times that I started tracking it in my Peetime notes. It happened so often I eventually gave up. But, as with the hand-held camera jiggling, noticing the trick pulled me out of the story.

So then, with all this attention lavished on Armstrong, why do I feel we never got to know him? It’s a long movie, but Armstrong is still a cipher by the end. I understand he wasn’t a demonstrative or friendly man in real life. That’s got to be hard to base a long movie around. The viewers never get past his eyes and into his head. A few expositional scenes from others were used to describe him, instead of letting us, the viewers, get to empathize with him ourselves.

So, yes, the critics loved this movie. You can see that on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience score, however, seems a lot more evenly divided, with a middling overall grade. Basically, First Man was competently done, but not stirring or thrilling. I don’t know how Apollo 13 was such a fantastic film, and this one (taking place in an overlapping time frame with the same historical figures) fell short.

Here’s my conclusion. This film is, first and foremost, a biographical drama. The space program is merely a framework for telling Armstrong’s private story. In that sense, it’s a success. Nicely done within those parameters.

But if you’re looking for a rousing space epic, this isn’t your film. In my theater, people hopped up all over the place to hit the bathrooms — even during the climax of the moon landing scene. As the credits began, a few people started a halfhearted attempt to clap, but gave up quickly when no one else seemed to care.

The science and history seemed rigorously accurate (although the ‘bracelet’ thing might be a storytelling liberty). It’s just unfortunate  the first man walking on the moon was too distracted by personal demons to enjoy the experience. I mean, it’s THE MOON, MAN! You’re going where no man has gone before! Enjoy it a little.  🙂

Grade: B

One Last Note: There were some good ‘action’ moments here and there —  the flight of the Gemini, the tragedy of the Apollo 1 astronauts trapped by the door, the awe-inspiring Earthrise, the sequence with the Saturn V blasting off, and docking with the LEM. (Dan and I visited a real Saturn V at the Kennedy Space Center, and walking under it was a total highlight. And it was sweet to see the VAB here, which really impressed me in person. It’s bigger than the brain wants to accept.) So, I’d say those were the standout moments. The moon scene was surprisingly underwhelming. I know why they filmed it this way — to focus exclusively on Armstrong’s experience — but I wish it had been an ensemble with the three men instead.

(Learn how closely the movie followed Neil Armstrong’s real life, and enjoy the photos showing the differences between the real historical figures, vs the actors’ faces.)

About The Peetimes: Here are 3 good Peetimes, nicely spaced out. You won’t miss any action, or even much dialog, during any of them. The middle one, at 1 hour and 7 minutes, gives you a whole 5 minutes to run and pee, so try to shoot for that. It’s a long film, so you should definitely use a Peetime to stay comfortable through the lunar landing climax. A lot of people got up and down at bad times during the opening showing. .

There are no extra scenes during, or after, the end credits of First Man. (What we mean by Anything Extra)

First Man Opinion — Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Apollo 11 Trivia Quiz

Jill Florio

Co-Creator of RunPee, Chief of Operations, Content Director, and Managing Editor. RunPee Jilly likes galaxy-spanning sci fi, superhero sagas, fantasy films, YA dystopians, action thrillers, chick flicks, and zany comedies, in that order…and possesses an inspiringly small bladder. In fact, that little bladder sparked the creation of RunPee. (Good thing she’s learned to hold it.)

First Man Opinion — Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

When I was in college, I worked at the United States Space Academy. It was an amazing experience. I grew up fascinated with space and science. I literally cried when my parents dragged me out of the Space and Rocket Center after our first, and only, visit. Years later, when I got to work there, it was rewarding to have the opportunity to help young children experience the joy and wonder I had when I was their age.

Obviously I’ve never flown in space, but I understand better than most the incredible technical hurdles it took getting to the moon. I’ve studied math, physics, and history, and the history of space exploration in depth. There is no doubt that the United States of America achieved something wholly remarkable when Neil and Buzz landed on the moon. But it is truly an epic achievement by all humanity. The USA would have never achieved all they did, in the time they did, if it wasn’t for the German engineers that came to America after WWII. Those engineers would have never come to the USA had the Allies not defeated Germany.  And the Allies couldn’t have defeated the Axis powers if not for the sacrifices of the British people early in the war, and more so the Russian people throughout, who sadly endured horrors that are hardly acknowledged today.

How could anyone land on the moon without radio communications — invented by an Italian? How could they navigate to the moon without calculus — invented by an Englishman and a German? (Note: Newton did it first; Leibniz did it better.) Without Modern Analytic Geometry — invented by the Frenchmen René Descartes and Pierre de Fermat — Newton and Leibniz wouldn’t have the tools to invent calculus in the first place.

As Newton said, If I have seen farther, it is only because I stood on the shoulders of giants. The United States of America finished a long endurance race that began millennia ago when a group of hominids — Homo erectus — discovered that putting meat and vegetables in fire made them more palatable and, unknowingly, more nutritious. Without that discovery, the moon would be nothing more than a bright source of light for a week out of the month to a bunch of bipedal hominids who don’t know what a month is.

The night before Apollo 11 returned to Earth Neil Armstrong signed off by saying:

The responsibility for this flight lies first with history and with the giants of science who have preceded this effort; next with the American people, who have, through their will, indicated their desire; next with four administrations and their Congresses, for implementing that will; and then, with the agency and industry teams that built our spacecraft, the Saturn, the Columbia, the Eagle, and the little EMU, the spacesuit and backpack that was our small spacecraft out on the lunar surface. We would like to give special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft; who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their hearts and all their abilities into those craft. To those people tonight, we give a special thank you, and to all the other people that are listening and watching tonight, God bless you. Good night from Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 Trivia Quiz

Where’s the American Flag in First Man?

Movie Review – First Man

Creator of RunPee. Aspiring author.

Where’s the American Flag in First Man?

Much ado has been made about the omission of the moment when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the American flag on the moon in the movie First Man. So what’s the deal?

Here’s what the director had to say about this decision:

“It surprised me because there are so many things that we weren’t able to focus on not only during the lunar EVA but in the entirety of Apollo 11. Just by the nature of the story we were telling, we just couldn’t go into every detail. So our through-line became, especially at this part of the movie where it’s the final emotional journey for Neil, what were the private, unknown moments of Neil on the moon? The flag was not a private, unknown moment for Neil. It’s a very famous moment and it wasn’t Neil alone. We included the famous descent down the ladder because that’s him alone, literally first feeling what it’s like to be on the moon. But other than that, we only wanted to focus on the unfamous stuff on the moon. So we don’t go into the phone call with Nixon, we don’t go into the scientific experiments, we don’t go into reentry.”

Regardless of how you feel about the exclusion of this scene, there are numerous people who (at least pretend) to care deeply about it. So much so, they told blatant lies that would be clear to anyone who’s even seen the movie trailer. It’s been said the American flag is deliberately never shown — this is false.

Here are three images (below) showing the American flag in a 2 1/2 minute First Man trailer. The movie is 2 hours and 21 minutes long, so they’re on pace to show the flag 169.2 times! (I’m sure it will be much less because, as they say: sample size matters.)

First Man Flag

First Man Flag

First Man Flag

First Man‘s Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle is known for stories of intense personal sacrifice in the struggle to achieve, like La La Land and Whiplash. The title First Man really sums up what this movie is about: an individual struggling against his fears, technology, physical limitations, and most of all, gravity.

Chazelle added:

“In First Man I show the American flag standing on the lunar surface, but the flag being physically planted into the surface is one of several moments of the Apollo 11 lunar EVA that I chose not to focus upon. To address the question of whether this was a political statement, the answer is, “No.” My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon. Particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.”

Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark, wrote in a statement:

“This story is human and it is universal. Of course, it celebrates an America achievement. It also celebrates an achievement for all mankind, (emphasis added) as it says on the plaque Neil and Buzz left on the moon. It is a story about an ordinary man who makes profound sacrifices and suffers through intense loss in order to achieve the impossible,”

Conclusion
There are those who think that everyone who disagrees with their perspective on patriotism has some agenda, or is behind some conspiracy to corrupt, what they feel, is the only true expression of patriotism. But, sometimes these decisions are based on artistic expression, or as is more often the case, didn’t notice that there was anything patriotic there in the first place.

Read Next: Where’s the Flag? Opinion, by polyGeek

Movie Review – First Man

Creator of RunPee. Aspiring author.