We all know the story of the Russian/US race to space in the 1960s, and the image of the first man stepping on the moon will forever be imprinted on people’s minds through film and television and American history textbooks. What many perhaps do not know is what it really took for those astronauts and their families to be part of that historical unknown—and possible failure—of being the first. Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle teams with Ryan Gosling once again to focus on the person of Neil Armstrong and the specific time period of 1961-1969 of NASA’s race to the moon, based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen.
Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) grieve over their young daughter Karen’s brain tumor diagnosis while Armstrong, as a NASA test pilot, is grounded after his rocket plane bounces off earth’s atmosphere. He seeks every treatment for his daughter but she dies soon afterwards throwing both he and his wife into a spiral of sadness and overwhelming grief. Their relationship as husband and wife at first seems intimate, but it gradually becomes more strained the more Armstrong turns his emotions inside unable to express his feelings. In a way, this is the most frustrating part of the film. Gosling keeps the same straight face through most of the film, making him a somewhat untouchable character. He applies for the Project Gemini mission and is accepted into NASA’s astronaut group, thereby moving his whole family to Houston settling near other astronaut families.
The Soviets keep taking the lead in the space race and perform the first space extravehicular activity. NASA is determined to stay in the race and Armstrong is given command of Gemini 8 with David Scott (Christopher Abbott) as his pilot. They successfully launch and dock with the Agena target vehicle but the spacecraft spins out of control. Right before blacking out, Armstrong aborts the mission and makes it safely back to earth. With each new space mission you get the sense from the film of the strained emotions between Neil and Janet, both knowing full well the risks every time he enters a spaceship. Soon after he is almost killed in a test of a lunar landing vehicle, ejecting just in time before the machine blows up. I suppose the risk involved in being an engineer at NASA is similar to that of being a first responder. Every mission means risking one’s life. I can’t imagine the strain that puts on loved ones, especially spouses. This story brings us up close and personal with each character through the handheld camera technique. This is an effective technique to some extent, but Chazelle overdoes it to the point of ad nauseum, literally. (If you get motion sickness, don’t see this film.) You are shaking with the same intensity as the astronauts are at take off. The only relief is when the camera focuses on the eyes and what is reflected back to the audience through them. This shot, done at different points throughout the film, provide a reflection on human possibilities and the ability to dare to dream. I found it to be rather ethereal and supernatural.
After a fire kills the Apollo 1 crew in a test, some of Armstrong’s closest friends, he is soon after selected to be the commander of Apollo 11 that is expected to be the first lunar landing. Before leaving for his mission, Janet insists that he talk to his young boys about the possibility of him never returning. With intense emotion, Janet makes him face the possibility and his responsibility to his family. Armstrong admits that he may not return with the most strained emotion, barely hugging his boys, perhaps almost numb to the reality.
The mission begins and with great emotion the audience watches a moment recreated for us that defies imagination. An historical landing on the moon and Neil Armstrong taking that first step along with Buzz Aldron (Corey Stoll) stirs up the awe that the whole world saw live with amazement. The flitter of the American flag near the landing module solidifies the United States place in the race to space with Russia. Yet, when we see that notable achievement we often do not consider the incredible amount of suffering that fed into those few powerful moments—both of the astronauts and their families. Through great suffering come great possibilities. Armstrong’s courage and perseverance amid the personal pain of loss and grief led him to sacrifice himself for the good of all of humanity. For all these heroes who sacrifice themselves for others and for their country, St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” Rm. 5:3-5.