I finally got to the theater again to see a first-run movie – First Man, and unabashedly admit to having thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I loved it, and intend to see it again. Unfortunately, if social media is any indication, at least one of the stars (Claire Foy) does not share my affection for this land of the free; home of the brave that spawned the courageous men and women profiled in the story. However, that attitude was not evident in her performance. Additionally, there was some controversy over omission of the flag planting. I don’t know if there was conscious intention to deflect credit for this amazing accomplishment from the United States, in an effort to promote globalism. I hope not, and I am especially glad I resisted my first impulse (based on that controversy) to boycott the film. I would have only cheated myself out of a great movie.
But, as the old writer cliche goes, “I digress.” This is neither a film review, nor an essay on Hollywood Meets Politics (and why we wish it wouldn’t).
About the audience: Fearing the show would be sold out when I arrived a bit late, I was shocked there were maybe only about 50 people in the theater. Most appeared to be my in my age bracket (Baby Boomer) and up, a group for whom these types of period pieces tend to give a sense of watching home movies.
About the movie: If this film had been made 15 or 20 years ago, I believe Kevin Costner would have starred as Neil Armstrong. Reluctantly realizing this is, however, now 18 years into the 21st century, I wholeheartedly embraced Ryan Gosling in the role. One review I read criticized the portrayal of Armstrong as “distracting,” because Gosling looks nothing like Armstrong. I don’t think it has ever been a priority for filmmakers to cast lookalikes for real people. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway looked nothing like Bonnie and Clyde. Or, returning to films of this century, does Leonardo DiCaprio look like J. Edgar Hoover? And how much does Tom Hanks physically favor Captain “Sully” Sullenberger?
Beyond the physical distraction, there was some criticism of Armstrong’s persona as aloof and unemotional. Well, Armstrong, the man, has been described as quiet and humble. And I have long noted that (especially) successful, driven men do tend to compartmentalize, and separate their personal life from their professional, often with the scales tipped in favor of the latter. Personally, I appreciated Gosling’s understated, “less is more” performance. I was not expecting to see Die Hard’s John McClane or Rambo, the Astronaut. Besides, Armstrong appeared sufficiently tough, with “the right stuff” as a test pilot and in scenes of the near fatal Gemini 8 mission. And as proof he was not always engineer/pilot/astronaut, there are a few touching “daddy” scenes, such as roughhousing with his sons, and playfully trying to put one in the freezer. That brought tender memories of something that might have occurred in my own family.
I did not realize until the credits rolled that Steven Spielberg was executive producer. Then, reflecting back on the frequent artsy shots of the moon throughout the film – the subtle symbolism seemed Spielberg signature.
About my perspective: As specific events, tests, and launches between 1961 and 1969 were identified via super with places and dates, I found myself thinking of how old I was at that time. With the exception of the moon landing, I never really followed NASA events, except when they occurred on schooldays, and a television was wheeled into the classroom so we could watch certain launches or splashdowns. In those days, it seemed important to educators that we young people understood that current events would become our history.
As I was mentally placing myself on the dates highlighted in the movie, I realized I was in the company of three people who were all born into a world where man had already walked on the moon. Two are just high school students, and were probably the youngest in the theater. However, the other person in my group is 47 years old, born two years after Apollo 11. For some reason, that realization underscored my appreciation of having been there, lived through that era. As much as I detest almost everything about aging, I am so grateful to have grown up in a world with just enough technology to make everyday life a little easier and enable some great inventions and discoveries, but with enough heart that human/personal relations were not sacrificed.
First Man accurately depicted the entire world watching and celebrating as one when Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” My own view of the momentous occasion on July 20, 1969 could not have been more red, white, and blue, all-American. Not just a Kodak moment, it was a virtual Norman Rockwell masterpiece. My big brother ( U.S. Army) had just returned from a year of active duty in Vietnam. He, his equally clean-cut best friend from high school, and I watched as the fuzzy, black and white televised image of Neil Armstrong proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Unlike the three people with whom I saw the movie, Jerry, Larry, and I were not born into a world where man had walked on the moon. Chuck Yeager had only recently broken the sound barrier when my brother was born, and it would be 14 more years before a manned spacecraft orbited the earth. Throughout our childhood, we had watched hokey sci-fi movies about martians and monsters from outer space. I can’t say we ever thought we would live to see man walk on the moon.
Unlike Apollo 13, First Man had few contemporary songs to set the period mood, though goodness knows, it was a golden age for music. Some featured news stories of the day were familiar to me, especially the “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” I do not specifically recall protests about “whitey on the moon.” However, the 1960s was an age of civil unrest. Maybe it was my naïveté and innocence. But, it seemed that unlike today’s professional protesters, 50 years ago, they actually believed in their causes.
The younger people with me take the moon landing for granted, much as I have always accepted the horseless carriage, electricity, and penicillin with little or no thought of existence without them. Nevertheless, my companions enjoyed the film, though not with the appreciation I had, due to my generational perspective.
In addition to the age disadvantage, my younger companions might have lacked other foundational information. After several communications from the spacecraft beginning with the astronauts addressing “Houston…” the 16-year-old female whispered to me, “Who is this Houston?” Choking back laughter, I explained it was the Mission Control Center in Houston, Texas. (Thank you, public education system?)
In all fairness, I should add that I had my own moment. On the eve of the lunar launch, cameras cut to a shot of a peaceful half moon, blissfully unaware it was about to be conquered. Something in my mind snapped, and for a brief second, I wondered, “Why a half moon? Seems they would wait for a full moon, with more room to land on.” In my defense, I think my brain is just hard-wired to go for a punchline and seek comic relief at any opportunity.
Back in the day, we could just sit in the theater, and watch a movie over and over again. If that were an option nowadays, I would have stayed for successive showings of this film. I actually did return to the theater four days later, and I truly would not be averse to seeing First Man a third time.
** artistic moon photos courtesy of my daughter, whose pictures can be obtained on shutterstock or istock