It is an all too human temptation to believe that historical figures lived their lives with a single-minded purpose, assured of their place in the lexicon of time. Categorize “First Man” as further evidence to the contrary. The film takes time to show, in painstaking detail, just all of the setbacks and difficulties that needed to be overcome in the effort to hear the words “One small step for man…” In a somewhat unexpected turn, however, all of the necessary minutia of preparing to fly to the moon takes a backseat to the personal drama (or lack thereof) in the family life of Neil and Janet Armstrong. For a movie about such a monumental achievement, it is the smallest of moments that has the greatest impact.
“First Man” is a study in parallels. The opening scene is a heart-pounding sequence wherein Armstrong tests the readiness of one of NASA’s aircraft. This is immediately followed by a touching scene with Neil’s daughter, who is suffering through brain cancer. It is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the entire story. Every developmental stumbling block at NASA is followed by a snapshot of family life. There is no explicit reason; rather the viewer is left observing in tandem the two major spheres of Armstrong’s life. At NASA, the project is advancing slowly, but definitively. At home, however, the scenes always strike the audience as just slightly off. Something is strange about Neil and Janet; their actions just a bit too stiff and wooden. Something is unaddressed and always left unsaid. A family tragedy strikes, but is clearly haunting the two of them for all the years taking place on screen.
On the other side of the glass, the countless hair-raising developments in the space program are depicted with astonishing accuracy and effectiveness. The cinematography does justice to the situation; for most of the film the events in the spacecraft are depicted through the eyes of the pilot, and the resulting smothering claustrophobia is an achievement when one is sitting in a room where wallets and phones are perpetually sucked into the void and never found again. Here, too, an implicit contrast is on display: the cramped,encased view of the astronauts is alleviated by the glorious (if eerie) open panorama when the Eagle lands on the moon. That particular scene is reminiscent of “Lawrence of Arabia:” a glorious but bleak view of a deserted and alien landscape. It is a great deal like the central character himself: historic but distant at the same time.
As with most things, the film is certainly not flawless. The jumps in time can be disconcerting, and the dedication to the “pilot’s-eye-view” has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to the shaky cam. Just because the astronauts felt like hurling doesn’t mean the audience should. Additionally, while the woodenness of Neil and Janet are intentional, the oversaturation of that particular trait can be off-putting. The largest flaw is that, for an intriguing film about one of the greatest achievements in history, it drags more than a few times. The length of a movie matters less than the extent to which it engages you. I have seen 3 hour long movies that have been gripping the whole way through, but it is problematic when a 2 hour movie feels like 3. That having been said, it is the last few scenes of the film that remind the viewer why he is there in the first place. The moon landing sequence is excellent, capped off by a touching scene at the edge of a crater in a moment which has been hanging over the story from the very beginning. The final scene, before the cut to black, however, deserves to be taken on its own.
After the return from the moon, Neil is put in quarantine to make certain that he has not carried something nefarious back from space with him. Janet comes to visit him, and in the final scene, they are left silently gazing at each other across the quarantine glass, their hands nearly touching but for that barrier. It is the capstone to their odd relationship throughout the movie. Nothing is said, but everything is said in that silence. Unlike the other sphere of the story, the arc of Neil’s home and personal life is never resolved. We are waiting for the resolution to a tension that still remains at the end.
All in all, it is not what I would have expected. It has none of the charm or spunk of “The Right Stuff.” None of the indomitable spirit and never-say-die attitude of “Apollo 13.” It is, rather, its own story, and tells it very well, the final image encapsulating the movie. If anything, it is hinting, ever so gently, that though we have traveled to the moon and back, there is still a barrier we can’t cross; still something we don’t understand. The home situation we assume will be resolved, and some closure brought to the open wound of his family tragedy, but the final scene just leaves us with that. It is something we struggle to understand, as the pane of glass is always between us and the answer. The tension isn’t resolved, but it is always felt.