First Man: Neil Armstrong As He (Partly) Was

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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.

Comments (16)

I'm with Buzz. Omitting the flag was inexcusable.

Posted by: Wally Roberts | October 14, 2018 5:11 PM    Report this comment

I started reading this, stopped and went to see the movie - impressive! Blessedly less talking than many movies, especially during the moon part. That was so starkly and quietly well done. The shaky-cam not so well - I think it somewhat detracted from things although the intent was clear. The lack of flag-planting depiction was perfect though. The movie directly references the common feeling around the world that people developed, that it was their moon landing too. It was classy to skip the overt flag thing. I suspect that for people who witnessed the real thing the moon landing section could be quite touching.

Posted by: Cosmo Adsett | October 15, 2018 1:19 AM    Report this comment

Not having seen this movie.. The American crew that landed on the moon, was an American program in a race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Bought and paid for by American citizens, not some fabricated notion of a global effort, while the rest of the world sat back and watched..

Posted by: Tom O'Toole | October 15, 2018 8:23 AM    Report this comment

I liked some parts. But the lack of realism, especially in flight scenes, ruined it for me. Would not watch again.
Excessively over-dramatized flight scenes.
Instruments are frequently zoomed in on while they do unrealistic things that may or may not relate to what can be seen 'outside'.
Motions and timing are frequently very fast-forwarded.
The excessive shaking everywhere! Not just the stupid amount in the flight scenes, but even on the ground the camera is all-over the place.
Apparently, the most important things to see are close-ups of people's eyes and screw-heads.

Posted by: Cameron Garner | October 15, 2018 11:05 PM    Report this comment

Tom O'Toole, while I respect your view you might consider the words on the plaque left by the Apollo 11 crew on the lunar surface:

JULY 1969 A.D.

Posted by: Don Gallion | October 16, 2018 7:19 AM    Report this comment

Plaques on the LM ladder notwithstanding, telling the story of the first moon landing, without including the flag-erecting event, is like telling the story of America's Revolutionary War, without mentioning the Declaration of Independence.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | October 16, 2018 9:59 AM    Report this comment

We were in a cold war under the treat of nuclear attack; from Sputnik onward it was a nonstop race between the US and USSR. There was no feel-good globalism present at the time that I can recall. The flag planting was the cherry on top. Can you imagine a film about the Indy 500 without a checkered flag?

Posted by: A Richie | October 16, 2018 11:13 AM    Report this comment

"telling the story of the first moon landing..."

I haven't seen the movie yet but I've heard a lot about it, and it seems to me that it's not a story about the first moon landing but rather the person who was at the controls for that landing.

To me, the flag planting is just a very small part of the whole Apollo program. Sure, it was what set everything in motion to reach the moon, but the science and engineering and planning to get there was so much more, as was everything that allowed us to work our way up to that point.

As for over-dramatization, that's kind of a subjective term. Just trying to hover and land a helicopter in gusty tailwinds can be the pilot on the controls. But the whole point is so that an outsider doesn't see or experience it as dramatic. So to that extent, I expect a certain level of additional dramatization in movies depicting real events.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 16, 2018 11:39 AM    Report this comment

"Can you imagine a film about the Indy 500 without a checkered flag?"

I think a more apt comparison is the kissing of the bricks and drink of milk rather than the checkered flag itself. The "prize" was landing on the moon first; the tradition was the planting of the flag.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 16, 2018 11:43 AM    Report this comment

A reader recently wrote angrily cancelling his AVweb subscription because we wrote a story that didn't mention the outrage over the flag planting. Seriously.

As Gary points out, First Man--book and film--is not about the moon landing, it's about Neil Armstrong's intersection with it and his other acheivements in aerospace. In the film, the lunar segment is compressed and highly stylized. It depicts none of the really important stuff like the surface experiments and sample collection. It's merely a bookender scene.

If you read Hansen's book, you'll get a more balanced perspective on what NASA thought about the flag and why. There's a long discussion about it, but the upshot was the agency sensed the U.S. had a larger role in representing human kind than it did planting the flag of any one nation. And you may have forgotten the astronauts brought with them and left behind medals honoring Soviet cosmonauts who had died.

To me, that was the far more profound gesture than planting the U.S. flag, although they were right to do that, too. It showed the U.S. in the confident and generous spirit we all thought defined us. It showed largeness. What many now decry as political correctness was NASA's sense of legacy for the ages. They got it exactly right, in my view.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 16, 2018 3:05 PM    Report this comment

Paul, the people who paid for and worked tirelessly to create the landing did it out of patriotism.
Neil and the rest of the military test pilots did it for country and out of duty.
Just because Hansen wrote a book expressing his viewpoints does not erase reality or the viewpoints of the hundreds of thousands who worked 16 hour days to make it all possible.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 16, 2018 7:26 PM    Report this comment

In summary, the landing was a war effort.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 16, 2018 7:45 PM    Report this comment

If you read the book, Mark, you'll understand that Hansen was not " expressing his viewpoints." His was a work of reportage, not opinion, not interpretation but disclosed fact based on quoted documents and interviews with people involved in the decision.

As for the film, this is just another ignition point across the red/blue divide, I'm not sure there is any wrong or right about it. But people who are offended should vote with dollars and not see First Man.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 17, 2018 3:50 AM    Report this comment

I attended Purdue University in the early 2000's majoring in aerospace engineering, with Armstrong being the most famous alumnus of the program. Armstrong made several visits while I was there - some were "official" and heralded, others were not.

By far the most memorable was one was an unplanned visit. One morning a group of us were headed to the aero student lounge in Grissom Hall (named after another famous Purdue Alum). When we arrived there was an older gentleman in the corner reading a copy of the campus newspaper. Most of us didn't give it a second thought, but one of the girls in our group had grown up down the street from Armstong and was a family friend. She recognized him and exclaimed, "Neil!"

We sat and chatted with him for several hours. He was very humble, yet out going and quick with an engineering joke or axiom. He was much more interested in reminiscing about his days as a student and sharing his engineering insights and lessons learned than he was about talking about the Apollo program or his military life. I think he thought he had more value to share in engineering mentorship than simply retelling the "so there I was" type of stories.

The new aero engineering building at Purdue is named after Armstrong, and has a statue of him out front. Not as an astronaut, but as his undergraduate self, sitting on a wall looking up to the sky. In the grass in front of him are replicas of his first step on the moon. His humility is what I believe made him the perfect choice as the First Man.

Posted by: Adam Rietz | October 17, 2018 10:47 AM    Report this comment

By coincidence, I just happened to be passing through Wapakoneta Ohio last Sunday and stopped in to see the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Neil's hometown. Like Armstrong himself, the museum is rather modest but well worth visiting; you will see a number of interesting personal and space artifacts including the very Aeronca Champ he soloed in 1946.

One of the things I learned, although in plain view the past 49 years, is that the official Apollo 11 mission patch (designed by Mike Collins, the commander in the orbiting service module) intentionally did not carry the names of the three astronauts as other missions typically did. This was supposedly a nod to the fact that the moon mission was a group effort, and pasting the crew's names on the patch would diminish the thousands of other names that also made vital contributions to the overall mission success.

The museum is right off the interstate about an hour north of Dayton and admission is $8 ($7 with a AAA card).

Posted by: A Richie | October 17, 2018 11:54 AM    Report this comment

"If you read the book, Mark, you'll understand that Hansen was not " expressing his viewpoints."

Well, if you watched any of the well researched documentaries about Armstrong (or the space race) in the last 5 years, you'd know that the entire effort was a war program (a cold war program). Heck, I just saw a documentary on youtube tonight where his wives, family, and children and fellow astronauts were interviewed. Even Neil said he was proud representing HIS COUNTRY in this effort. People were working 16-20 hour days at least 6 days a week NOT FOR HUMANITY but to beat the Russians to the moon.

Read the book? Heck, I grew up with the space program!

Posted by: Mark Fraser | October 17, 2018 8:37 PM    Report this comment

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