Review of First Man

First Man (2018)
The inner journey to being the first...
27 December 2018
Just got home from watching First Man.

I'll disclose straight away that I am a HUGE student of manned space flight. I've seen the Apollo 11 capsule and Neil Armstrong's X-15 hanging from the roof of the Smithsonian in Washington. I've visited Cape Kennedy 3 times and done all the tours. I have read many of the astronauts' books, including Andrew Chaikin's outstanding "A Man on the Moon". Obviously, I am also a huge fan of the HBO series "From the Earth to the Moon". On top of all that - as a 10-year-old, I sat and watched completely gripped as Armstrong made the famous first step. I admit though, that I hadn't read "First Man".

So, what about this film? Well, it's not about going to the moon, although you could see it like that if you wanted to. So - what is it about? Now we get to the thought-provoking part; it's not clear.... I think it's about what the inner journey for Neil Armstrong might have been like. A lot of this is left up to us as we see what he experienced, and how he dealt with it.

Looking at the film, it's obvious that there is something quite de-humanising about everything surrounding space flight. Astronauts rely completely on machines; machines are our way into space, machines dominate every aspect - right down to enabling us to breathe. We are strapped into this machine - and it goes...

The space flight and launch sequences are brilliant. You and I are never going to experience being inside a Gemini capsule during launch - but First Man takes you as close as we are going to get. These rockets are scary and dangerous and it takes special qualities to fly in them.

Then there is an aspect to the film which is on another level again; and this is that, perhaps, for Armstrong, the whole personal journey of going to the moon, and being first was for him an unreal and out of body experience. After all - what can possibly prepare you to ride one of the most powerful and sophisticated machines ever built to another world? The answer is nothing can.

Armstrong in the film realises this. He is in a ground-braking and extremely dangerous line of work! The film shows this well. Test pilot, astronaut - Armstrong is very good at what he does. His role in saving Gemini 8 from disaster is shown. Had that mission ended in death for himself and Dave Scott, the whole history of the exploration of space might have turned out very differently, i.e. the Russians might have gotten to the moon first. In fact, he is so good, that he is the one chosen to solve the final problem and overcome the fraught challenge of flying that first moon landing.

Also, there is the personal dimension. Armstrong is a family man - but his line of work brings him close to death on many occasions. This is not lost on Jan, his wife. Her portrayal, by Claire Foy is excellent and believable. She tries to be supportive, but it is impossible for her too. Because the business of going to the moon is so difficult, so technically challenging and dangerous, so reliant on machines that could fail - the Apollo astronauts themselves all thought that they had a one in three chance of dying on a mission. All the wives and partners knew this too, particularly after the Apollo 1 catastrophe - which wasn't even in space.

OK. So, what about the film??? Well.... I liked it - but then I have deep knowledge of this subject and am always happy to watch films or shows about space. If I step back though, I can see why and how this movie might leave a lot of people cold. Why? Well, because Armstrong is shown rather dehumanized and abstracted from everything he is so profoundly absorbed with. A lot of viewers may not like the Armstrong of this movie - but I suspect that this portrayal is quite near to life. He is not shown here as some gung-ho all-American hero. Far from it. He is almost machine-like in his application to what is required to solve the problems and deal with the inherently dangerous business of going to the moon. He displays few emotions. It is unclear whether he is trying to protect himself or the people around him though this behaviour. Either way, Gosling's Armstrong does not grab you as someone you would enjoy going to the moon with. Sure - you'd get there safely - but after 10 days in space with him, you wouldn't know him any better. Armstrong would be in the Lunar Module with you - but he would be on his own inner journey.

Essentially, First Man is about just that; Armstrong IS the one who has been chosen to do these things first. Why? Because he has been identified as having the qualities required to carry it off. Once chosen, he has to find a way to deal with the enormity of the technical challenge of the first landing AND the personal challenges of keeping his real life together in the face of huge danger. First Man is a film about how one particular person handled the inner journey required. The viewer is left to reflect on it.
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