First Man is the sort of film that is destined to produce tons of fans and plenty of haters. A dramatic retelling of Neil Armstrong’s journey to become first man on the moon, several things inevitably conspire to create controversy. It’s a film saddled with the curse of covering its subject matter in a way that many people neither expect nor want to see it handled. To make matters worse it’s a film about iconic American history produced in the midst of a bitter culture war in the United States. Here the mutual fist-shaking focuses on the production decision not to show Neil Armstrong plant the American flag on the lunar surface. No less than Trump himself has weighed in on this issue, promising he won’t see the movie because of the omission. The real Buzz Aldrin took to Twitter to mock the directors, tweeting a picture of the flag planting with the appropriate political hashtags. I can’t exactly say I’m in a position to argue with Buzz Aldrin, but I am disappointed by the whole thing.
I’m disappointed because aside from this, First Man is a pretty damn good movie. It’s a shame to see it overshadowed by one ill-advised direction decision. It makes things especially complicated because First Man isn’t really what most people would expect from a movie about Apollo 11. If I had to describe it succinctly, I might be tempted to go for the word “anxietycore”. Every scene in First Man is awkward and anxious. From the opening sequence on to the final lunar approach and landing. The directors try to take the viewer back to a time before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were gods, when they were just men in a rocket and the supporting techs were just rude mechanicals. For people who are expecting a silver screening of the triumphant, omnipotent euphoria and cultural nostalgia surrounding Apollo 11 I expect this movie will be a real disappointment.
One place where First Man excels is depicting the true difficulty and vastness of space exploration, thin margins for error and all. It plays very well with the choice of anxiety as an overriding theme. Reaching the silent lunar surface after all that struggle is otherworldly, almost eerie. I found myself reminded of H.P Lovecraft’s sentiment that humanity is meant to live in ignorance, that the universe is simply too big and too scary for us to venture far in. By flattening even the interpersonal world that Armstrong inhabits, the underlying existential aspect is better communicated. And yes, the scenes of Neil’s private life are staggeringly awkward. I’m not sure if it’s because the directors are scared by the world of 1960 and have trouble depicting it in a sympathetic way, or because they’re going for a French slow-burn long-shot aesthetic, but either way the awkwardness of the setting is almost totalitarian. To someone who’s not particularly invested in the idea, this movie could easily come off as a depiction of insanity. Who would do this to themselves? What motivates someone to strap themselves to a giant bomb just so they can get a scoop of moon dirt?
Critically to the composition, First Man doesn’t tell us. Armstrong is a man apart through the entire movie, his inner thoughts aren’t presented in the narrative. A lone exception is made for the moonwalk, where Neil’s face is obscured by his visor and the movie hits its dramatic climax. For the rest of the movie these details are communicated only through subtext. The closest we get to an explanation is the opening scene, where Neil appears to stall a test flight for an experimental plane to get a look at earth’s atmosphere. He later tells NASA during his audition that space exploration changes your perspective, and he’s hopeful the mission will help the world see things it should have seen sooner. This abstract, vague gesture towards something is the only explanation provided for why Neil is insisting he be sent back into training after nearly killing himself in a test vehicle crash, why he’s submitting to painful interview questions from the press, why he’s straining his relationship with his wife. And ‘why’ becomes an overbearing question at points in this movie. When Neil sits down with his sons and tells them he might not be coming back, in an awkward long-shot of nervous fidgeting and darting eyes, one wonders what motivation is at work in this character. We don’t know, and are only left to guess from the narrative clues provided by the director.
Another place where First Man is particularly impressive is plot structure. For an event as complex and expansive as the Apollo missions, the directors do an incredible job of rendering it in a way that can be understood without ever feeling condescending or cheesy. The movie makes incredible use of setup and callback. Perhaps my favorite example is that throughout the film, scenes tend to end or start on shots of the moon visible in the sky. This on its own would be competent, certainly it helps communicate the sheer ambition of the project and reminds the viewer of what all this preliminary work is for. But the true payoff comes when, after landing on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong peers up at the sky and sees Earth in the exact same position that has been occupied by the moon in every other comparable shot in the film. It’s a moment that truly underscores just how incredible the journey undergone by Armstrong is, with Earth every bit as distant and impossibly far away seeming as the lunar surface had been on Earth.
Overall, it’s not exactly a life changing experience and I could have lived without seeing it, but I do have to admire the cinematic accomplishment here. If you’re someone who thinks a subtle, anxious and gritty film about Neil Armstrong’s perspective in the Apollo mission sounds interesting you’ll probably enjoy it. If you’re looking for a celebration of the Apollo mission, this movie isn’t what you’re looking for.