Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.
The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name. It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then. There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra. Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission. He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson. As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos. That seems like quite the exaggeration. There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out. Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema. I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.
The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return. It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission. Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut. The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.
First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing. In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action. This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication. The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period. That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.
Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.” The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him. In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working. The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father. From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most. We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons. He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory. Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable. If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.
I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife. In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men. She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing. In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less. If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary. That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.
There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far. Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax. Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images. He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line. The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were. That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.
**1/2 out of Five