First Man: Neil Armstrong As He (Partly) Was
Of all the stories told about Neil Armstrong—and there are many—my favorite was related by the lively Alan Bean, the lunar module pilot on Apollo 12 who died earlier this year. One morning in 1968, Bean had learned that Armstrong had just punched out of the notoriously twitchy Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, missing being incinerated by less than a second.
Bean was shocked that Armstrong was at his desk an hour later. “Those guys out in the office said you bailed out of the LLTV this morning,” Bean asked Armstrong. “He said ‘yeah.’ That was all he said, ‘yeah’! I mean, this guy was a second and half from being killed. That was it!” Bean said, incredulous.
Bean knew that story captured the essential Neil Armstrong: unflappably analytical, task focused and with emotions controlled as tightly as a banjo string. Those of us who grew up in the age of Apollo know this, by degree, about Armstrong and now a new film by director Damien Chazelle attempts to reveal Armstrong to a wider audience nearly a half century after his historic boot prints in the regolith of the Sea of Tranquility.
First Man, based on the book of the same name by NASA veteran James Hansen, is an ambitious effort, given the long arc of Armstrong’s aerospace career and the largely unknown depth of his achievements unrelated to Apollo. The book is nearly 500 pages and chronicles Armstrong’s life in exhaustive detail. Cinematically, where do you even begin with such a thing, festooned as it is with so much technical minutiae as to glaze the eyes of even space geeks? Chazelle and screenwriter John Singer, who was born three years after that summer of tranquility, began in the middle and not, I am afraid, auspiciously.
Before I plod on, my usual disclaimer. Aviation people are generally sticklers for aeronautical detail, but we’re sophisticated enough to understand a director’s need for license in order to keep the unwashed masses sufficiently engaged to swill the second Super-Sized sugary drink. Now, back to your regularly scheduled film review.
Chazelle’s opening scene has Armstrong in the darkened cockpit of the X-15, an aircraft that he flew seven times, launching on a research flight. Just one quibble—why must the shot show the release skimming a cloud deck? (It’s rhetorical; don’t answer.) My larger complaint is that the scene depicts Armstrong almost shivering in fear in a bucking bronco of an airplane because this is thought to be the only way to convey risk taking to an audience. Unfortunately, it sets a tone for the some of the subsequent scenes in which the astronauts seem to display overt fear in the way we, as pilots, know they don’t, at least if they hope to survive.
Just as a technical aside that I concede couldn’t be included, that X-15 flight was what became known as the Pasadena Flyover. Armstrong was flying south at Mach 5 and the test card called for testing a g-limiter in the control system. Armstrong pulled a little too vigorously and popped above the atmosphere where the X-15’s aerodynamic controls had too little bite for him to turn back north to Rogers dry lake. By the time he could turn—over Pasadena—he was low and swished the Joshua trees on final into another lake. (That’s what all that radio dialog describing turning was about.)
Chazelle uses this as a vehicle to introduce the central tragedy of Armstrong’s life: the loss of his two-year-old daughter, Karen, to cancer. It’s implied that his flight performance was hampered as a result, although Armstrong—as told to author Hansen—didn‘t think he was affected enough to ground himself. Karen’s death and his suppression of his grief are emblematic of Armstrong’s emotional distance throughout the film, at least as played by Ryan Gosling.
But if the film stumbles out of the blocks, it redeems itself by moving briskly to the Gemini and Apollo programs. Boy, does it. The scene of Armstrong’s recovery of a wildly out-of-control Gemini spacecraft docked with an Agena target vehicle is riveting and terrifying, even if you know what’s going on, which I did. In case you don’t or forgot, Armstrong and Dave Scott had just completed the first hard dock with the problematic Agena Target Vehicle, using little proven orbital transfer methods. But a stuck thruster caused by a short circuit spun the two vehicles, which promptly roll coupled into a vicious rolling tumble that eventually reached 360 degrees per second after Armstrong undocked. Armstrong and Scott were within seconds of losing consciousness before Armstrong recovered with the re-entry reaction control system, requiring the mission to be terminated early.
First Man hits a few of the space program high points—the selection and training, the loss of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett in a T-38 crash and, of course, the Apollo 1 fire. Even though the film is exceptionally long at 2 hours and 21 minutes, it doesn’t drag a bit. It squeezes the Apollo 11 mission into the final 30 minutes. The lunar segment is alternately too abbreviated and stylized and absolutely stunning for its visuals.
The details of the 1201/1202 alarms drift by in the wind, but if the Eagle’s translation over the cratered surface doesn’t make your palms sweat, you’ve got your eyes closed—and you know what’s going to happen. When Gosling’s Armstrong steps off the LM onto the surface, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s shot is so perfectly composed and lighted that no suspension of disbelief is required. You are there. That and the Gemini 8 segment make First Man worth the 10 bucks and two-and-half hours.
However. And there’s always a however. I think it paints a one-dimensional picture of Neil Armstrong, or at least just one version of Neil Armstrong. Hansen’s book has the editorial breadth to offer a more nuanced portrait of Armstrong to the extent that you understand his emotional decoupling was a function of two things. An intense curiosity—about everything—to the exclusion of all else and a conviction that the story of space exploration was about the program, not the guys sitting in the pointy end of the rocket.
In the run-up to Apollo 11, no less a literary lion than Norman Mailer fussed and fumed at Armstrong’s refusal to emote in a manner appropriate to the achievement of walking on another celestial body. Mailer—and the press—pined for a Homeric figure of epic eloquence. But Armstrong focused, rightly, on what might be overlooked that could cause Grumman’s brilliantly engineered LM to be his and Buzz Aldrin’s sarcophagus. And there were a thousand things that could have.
Even some of the astronauts may have felt the same. Implicit in Alan Bean’s story above is the notion that his reaction to surviving the LLTV crash was somehow just a little too laid back. The wisecracking Pete Conrad would have embellished it into a rip-roaring-there-I-was story Bean would have loved. For Armstrong, it was just another day at the office. The film has Armstrong wound up after the incident, something the book simply fails to authenticate.
Even after his death, we still keep trying to make Armstrong into something he was not. And here a spoiler alert. Near the end of the film, Armstrong stands on the rim of a lunar crater and slowly opens his glove, revealing a tiny bracelet of Karen’s introduced earlier in the story. He tosses it into the shadows. Armstrong never revealed what he carried to the moon in his personal preference kit, but the director couldn’t resist tying it in a nice bow with what we wish he would have carried.
Armstrong said he understood why people felt an overpowering need to cannonize the astronauts and especially the first man to walk on the moon. If he accepted it, he never embraced it. I always took that at face value and not as false modesty. But Armstrong and wife Janet divorced in 1994 after 34 years of marriage; she cited emotional estrangement as causal. And here a word for Claire Foy, who plays Janet. If an Oscar comes this film's way, she oughta get it.
I think Neil Alden Armstrong’s sister, June Hoffman, told the ultimate truth about the first man: “He was the man that you saw. That was him.”
Once you’ve seen the film, I highly recommend Hansen’s telling of the story. You’ll find the detail fascinating and unfreighted by a regrettable veer toward hagiography. And here's a documentary film that's a nice companion to the book.