Sometimes we must step back, far back, from a problem and take a deep breath to see it clearly.
I don’t go to many movies. Most aren’t worth the price of admission, let alone the price of popcorn. But “First Man” left a profound impression that must have crossed the creators’ minds as they assembled this docudrama about Neil Armstrong and his historic flight to the moon in July 1969. Maybe because I remember watching the landing live (a transmission miracle itself) with my three small children; more likely because it puts today’s global angst into perspective. Also because computer-assisted stunts littering action movies were ignored in favor of real sensual assaults, like stomach-churning noise and vibration.
But the most startling realization is that the voyage was planned and accomplished with a fraction of current technology. Think entering a Model T in the Indianapolis 500.
The film’s only disappointment was not showing Earth, from the moon. Google the photos on National Geographic — images are overwhelming, making me wonder how early cartographers got it so right with instruments at hand.
In this space odyssey, Damien Chazelle, the young French director who wasn’t even born in 1969, humanizes the story by juxtaposing Armstrong’s professional ambitions against the loss of a baby daughter to brain cancer in 1962. This tragedy seemed to sharpen his focus, at the expense of his wife and two small sons. Neither the deaths of fellow-astronauts nor demonstrators protesting NASA funding seemed to faze him. Thank goodness, we’re spared any attempt to make Ryan Gosling look like Armstrong, a quiet, shy man. Gosling speaks most lines with his eyes or, as in the final scene, a gesture.
Knowing the outcome did not diminish the excitement, the terror, the pride watching this story unfold, climaxing with Armstrong stepping down the ladder from the lunar module onto the moon’s surface. Chazelle appears to have spliced in actual footage and, perhaps, the real Armstrong’s voice uttering that prophetic phrase “a small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.”
Notice he said “mankind,” meaning the human race, not the United States of America. Yet back on Earth pettiness prevails. The issue: not showing Armstrong planting the American flag on the lunar surface — although a long shot does feature him beside the Stars and Stripes. Sen. Marco Rubio (before even seeing the film) tweeted, “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets paid for by Americans, with American technology and carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
Blah-blah-blah. You hadn’t been born in 1969, either, Senator, so sit down and hush up.
Of course there have been other notable firsts: organ transplantation, disease eradication, cloning animals and perhaps, humans. But nothing even comes close to “slipping the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God,” a phrase made famous by a World War II pilot killed in action and quoted by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 when he addressed the nation following the Challenger explosion, which claimed the lives of seven crew, including two women, one a civilian who was to be the first teacher in space.
From outer space Earth appears gorgeous beyond description. But the closer you get, the uglier it gets. War, famine, pestilence of biblical proportion sully its magnificence. Petty politicians spew nationalism, as if any “nation” could own this miracle, this one-and-only (so far) habitable rock in the entire universe. You would think, viewing our home from a distance of 238,885 miles, wrangling might melt away in the presence of luck or divine intervention or whatever your beliefs. That people would cherish and protect Earth — would enjoy and share it.
Didn’t happen. Probably never will until every xenophobe watches an earthrise from that powdery lunar surface.
Hey Marco … you up for the trip?
This film does not entertain. It rivets as scenes of mom-and-pop life in the 1960s melt into blaring rockets. Or the faces of astronauts who, pre-flight, have prepared documents for their widows lest they never return. I saw “First Man” at the Sunrise. Unfortunately, Dolby sound overwhelmed the small space, causing blurry dialogue. But everything else came through loud and clear.
I’m determined to see it again somewhere, in IMAX. Because any true first, especially one this spectacular, deserves a second look.