One Apollo Historian’s Thoughts on “First Man”

By Amy Shira Teitel | October 12, 2018 1:24 pm

s66-24380~origI managed to get to a preview screening of First Man this week! And as someone who has been steeped in Apollo and space history for the better part of her life (I learned about the Moon landing when I was seven and have been obsessed ever since) I have some thoughts about it… Heads up: there are spoilers.

I wanted to love this movie.

The best thing about this movie is it’s gorgeous. Without question, my favourite part was the attention to detail on the hardware. The control panels, the wear on dials, the texture on the insides of plains and spacecraft were all so beautifully done there were some shots that looked almost like the old pictures I’ve seen hundreds of times. Even the colour palette is so perfectly mid-century there are moments you feel like you’re in old NASA b-roll. I won’t totally spoil it, but the opening sequence is awesome.

Damien Chazelle use of space in capturing the tight quarters of the Gemini spacecraft brought my favourite program to life fantastically, and the violent camera motions give a sense of being inside the cramped spacecraft on a harrowing mission. There was a beautiful use of space in the Armstrong home, with shots using the hall or a doorway to frame characters in poignant moments.

The gorgeous cinematography, however, didn’t make up for what struck me as a strange lack of humanity. Which was actually my biggest concern going into this movie. Neil Armstrong’s career was incredible but he was notoriously stoic and reserved, which doesn’t always make for a riveting central character. 

The Gemini 8 prime (Armstrong and Scott) and backup crew (Conrad and Gordon), displaying a sense of humour. NASA

The Gemini 8 prime (Armstrong and Scott) and backup crew (Conrad and Gordon), displaying a sense of humour. NASA

Sidebar for a personal story: I never met Neil, but he did review the first two print articles I ever wrote, one about the X-15 and one about the Dyna-Soar. When he sent me notes via my editor, they were things only an engineer would be bothered by, like my converting knots into miles per hour. This was a man who did everything by the book, an engineer through and through, and an excellent one.

The movie’s narrative is shaped around the (until now) little-known fact that Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) lost his infant daughter Karen shortly before deciding to apply to NASA’s astronaut corps in 1962. This becomes the story element meant to make him a sympathetic character, his ongoing struggle with mortality seemingly at odds with his engineering brain. Only it came off like he was growing increasingly unhinged. He has visions of Karen at unexpected moments. As pilots die — Elliot See, Ted Freeman, C. C. William, Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee — he outwardly maintains an even strain but begins lashing out at friends and withdrawing into himself as he looks longingly at the Moon. 

The emotion follows him all the way there. In a long moment of radio silence, we see a single tear fall down his cheek before he finds some form of closure by throwing Karen’s bracelet into a dark crater in a shot strikingly reminiscent of Old Rose throwing the Heart of the Ocean into the sea at the end of Titanic. His heart will go on. 

It made me think: if Neil Armstrong was the kind of man to cry on the Moon, would he have been picked to go at all?

I’ve been deep in the weeds researching the development of NASA’s astronaut corps for a while now (project announcement pending) and I’ve come to the conclusion that test pilots were absolutely the right men for the job on Apollo. These were men who, bravado aside, followed mission rules to the letter. They were men who faced death in experimental planes and still maintained a clear head because they knew that clear head was the only thing keeping them from meeting death. They were the men who, coupled with exhaustive and thorough training and a constant babble over the radio, could be counted on to not completely lose their minds in the moment of realizing I’m standing on the MOON! I mean, can you imagine what seeing Earth from a quarter of a million miles away would feel like?! Because to me, it feels like anxiety. Actually, translunar EVAs get me more, but I digress… 

The tear on the Moon was the climax of a sad man’s prolonged suffering, but the events leading up to the landing felt off. All the harrowing missions — Gemini 8’s roll, the LLRV crash, the Apollo1 fire — are real, but their presentation didn’t evoke emotion for me.   

Neil, rocking shades, approaches an early prototype of the LLRV. NASA

The LLRV — Lunar Landing Research Vehicle — was a problematic vehicle on a good day the astronauts used to train for the lunar landing. A big engine in the middle provided enough thrust to simulate the Moon’s 1/6th gravity. From there, the pilot used thrusters to land. In the movie, there’s a great shot from Neil’s point of view as he ejects and looks down at the fiery wreckage he narrowly avoided being a part of before he’s dragged across a field. The movie shows him then rushing home for a drink before returning to the office, still bloody and obviously shaken. Reports I’ve read say he bit his tongue pretty badly but was in the office an hour later writing up the report to avoid another accident.

The other one was the Apollo 1 fire. The scene in the movie shows the fire starting inside the spacecraft before switching to an external shot before we hear a sound like a muffled bomb. The Apollo 1 accident report describes that moment of rupture differently:

Flames and gases flowed rapidly out of the ruptured area, spreading flames into the toroidal space between the Command Module pressure vessel and heat shield, through access hatches and into levels A-8 and A-7 of the service structure. These flames ignited combustibles, endangered pad personnel, and impeded rescue efforts. The burst of fire, together with the sounds of rupture, caused several pad personnel to believe that the Command Module had exploded or was about to explode. Pad personnel fled from the immediate area.

Diminishing Apollo 1 felt really weird to me. But this isn’t a movie about the space race, it’s about Neil the island.

Solidifying Neil’s isolation was the absolute whirlwind of unremarkable colleagues and snippets of context. Ed White get some character development. Buzz Aldrin is there, though he’s bald and mean. Otherwise, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize anyone if you don’t know what names to be on the lookout for. Someone yelled at Pete to call Walter Cronkite at one point. Someone said Deke was on the phone. We see the astronauts’ frustration over Alexei Leonov’s spacewalk but then we skip to Gemini 5. This does the job of isolating our main character, but I did wonder how much people unfamiliar with era would be lost. 

S69-40958Then again, I’m a fussy historian and context is sort of my thing. But as an historian I’ve read all the Apollo mission transcripts, and the Mercury and Gemini transcripts, and I wanted to see some human Neil in the cockpit instead of the few moments home that, while touching, felt at odds with pilot Neil.

By all accounts, Neil had a dry sense of humour. The underwear incident on Apollo 11 stands out: 

Neil Armstrong (131:42:30): You ready for your underwear? Mike – you ready for your underwear? You ready for your underwear?

I asked Mike Collins about this last year and he told me this was Neil’s way of teasing him about not needing a lunar-ready, liquid-cooled undergarment. Another Apollo 11 moment stands out. On the far side of the Moon after the landing, when the crew was out of radio contact with Earth, Neil and Buzz excitedly walk Mike Collins through the samples they’d collected. 

Even something as simple as his reaction on reaching orbit on Gemini 8 would have humanized him: 

P (Dave Scott): Hey, how about that view!
C (Neil Armstrong): That’s fantastic!
P: They were right, weren’t they?
C: Boy! Here we go!

I couldn’t help but want to see some of that in the movie, something to make him feel more like a human and less like a Replicant. Instead, Jan Armstrong (Claire Foy) did the emoting for both of them and did it admirably. 

People are going to love this movie because it is beautiful and it’s Neil Armstrong. But for me, it isn’t usurping Apollo 13 as the best space movie of all time.

So who am I? For those of you who don’t know, I’ve got a Bachelor’s in History of Science and Technology and a Master’s in Science and Technology Studies. I’ve read countless books about the era, watched hundreds of hours of archived footage, read every Apollo mission transcript and mission report and most from the Gemini and Mercury programs, too. I have a Gemini tattoo. My wall is filled with autographs from Apollo astronauts I’ve met. I even wrote a book on the prehistory of NASA. 

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Physics
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  • Greg Brance

    “Otherwise, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize anyone if you don’t know what names to be on the lookout for.”

    Don’t tell me they left out Collins?

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    People are going to love this movie because it is beautiful
    How many American flags were displayed? Said movie is political and seditious.

    • RogerInHawaii

      Political and seditious? That’s absurd. The story is about the PERSON, Neil Armstrong. While the space race itself was indeed a political competition between the U.S. and Russia, Armstrong himself never “waved the flag”, never took a political stand. He did his job as an engineer, a test pilot, and an astronaut. No flags necessary.

      And how in the world can the lack of flags be considered seditious???

      • OWilson

        My children were taught in school that the Cold War was a “struggle for dominance between two superpowers”.

        No mention of world dictatorial communism vs democracy and freedom :)

        • RogerInHawaii

          Who said anything about the Cold War? I mentioned the space race merely because Uncle Al was complaining that no flags were shown in the movie and that it therefore was a political and seditious movie. Neither your comment nor Uncle Al’s has anything to do with the movie!

          It was a movie about Neil Armstrong, not politics or the space race or the Cold War.

          • OWilson

            The “space race”, that YOU introduced into the thread, was the child of the Cold War. :)

            At the time, the planting of the American Flag on the Moon was a very big deal, indeed!

            “…if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny… this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

            In other words, at a time when Communist expansion around the world was a given, the planting of the Hammer and Sickle flag on the Moon, might well have had Russian as your second language today! :)

            Hollywood, being primarily an entertainment business, has always had a rather tenuous relationship with actual history!

          • RogerInHawaii

            Good lord. The movie was about NEIL ARMSTRONG and the emotional turmoil that followed him throughout his life because of his daughter’s death. People write books and make movies for lots of different reasons, from lots of different perspectives, and with lots of different objectives.

            Uncle Al made the assertion that the movie was “political and seditious” when in fact it was no such thing. Complaining that someone made a movie that didn’t address the issues that YOU thought should be addressed is just complaining for the sake of complaining.

          • OWilson

            It was the driving national political imperative to get there before the Russians, which was the reason Armstrong found himself on the Moon, rather than continuing to test X-15s at Edwards Air Force Base.

            He didn’t wake up one day and figure it would be a cool idea to fly to the Moon! :) The entire reason he was sent there?

            Why would a simple addition to the plot to reflect the symbolic significance of the entire mission upset you folks so? :)

            (When Scott of the Antarctic found Amundsen’s Norwegian flag at the South Pole, it became a national disgrace, and when Edmund Hillary planted one on top of a mountain, some folks were in such awe they purportedly named their daughter, who would in the future, become a two time Presidential Candidate, after him!)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

        “the PERSON, Neil Armstrong” was a NASA creation, as were they all, and the astronaut concept overall. Read “The Right Stuff” Tom Wolfe (1979). NASA wanted “spam in the can” because chimps were vicious, including Press conferences. A broadly smiling chimp wants to kill you.

        Planting the American flag on the moon was the Right Stuff. Agonizing as it whipped in takeoff exhaust showed the patriotic depth of the men. The movie is Leftist propaganda, NASA socialism. The seven astronauts deeply disliked each other. In kind, “Mythbusters” were not friends, they were coworkers.

        • Tony Adler

          In other words, you didn’t see it.

  • Steve Williams

    Your review of First Man shows that you are way too deep of a NASA nerd to enjoy an abstract movie about a very specific part of Neil Armstrong. This movie was not about going to the moon or NASA. This was an abstract telling of a man and his wife dealing with the death of their daughter. It just so happens that he was a NASA astronaut. Being an engineer, Neil’s brain thinks in absolutes: “if THIS, then THAT.” He was unable to fix his daughter. He took copious notes and did all the right things, yet she died anyway. The death of a child would haunt any parent for the rest of their days anyway, but a man as stoic and reserved as Neil Armstrong, I am sure it would have eaten his guts up. This was a time when the world called “PTSD” SHELL SHOCK, and “as a man” you were expected to shake it off. Mental illness was seen as a weakness, and asking for help dealing with emotional stress was seen as a weakness. Clair Foy stole this entire movie and I would expect to see her receive a nomination for best supporting actor. His portrayal of Armstrong may be spot on, but Neil was a very reserved man, and that does not take the acting chops that Clair Foy gave. Understandably, your focus is on historical accuracy and NASA lore, yet the story being told is not the one you wanted to see. I love your channel, however I think it skewed your view of this film. First Man is an abstract telling of one singular part of how a very complicated yet stoic man and his wife dealt with the death of their daughter.

  • ChuckNoland

    To me the makers of this film specifically did not want an follow the historical importance that the flag represented. Often times movie studios will shoot different scenes and edit films for different audiences. They could have easily had the flag in for the US audiences and not for the rest of the world. They don’t want anyone feeling good about the US until Trump is out of office.

  • Steve Larson

    Amy – you’re probably aware of this already, but in case you’re not, there’s an amazing interactive, highly detailed 3D model of the Apollo 11 command module created by the Smithsonian here:
    https://3d.si.edu/apollo11cm/index.php

  • OWilson

    Launching a manned spacecraft from the Earth is a still a big deal to me, requiring huge infrastructure.

    That they managed to launch a manned craft from the surface of the moon to get the astronauts safely back to Earth, some 50 years ago, is mind blowing!

    Truly our greatest generation!

  • Andy Zhang

    Dear Luna
    You don’t know me, but I want you to know that as your admirers we had been so close to you. I never know the feelings being with you, I know however the feeling to be away from you. We don’t blame you because we were not one hundred percent in love with you. Our Lunar Landing Module worked very well throughout the mission. While decisioning, the moment we saw the Earthrise in the distance, we chose to go. I am truly sorry. We were the only crew who were sped up to go back home in time by the courtesy of your Gractiveness. So I want to tell you how much trained we were to have been able to reach you.
    Yours the crew of Apollo 13.
    Show less

    REPLY

  • https://www.facebook.com/app_scoped_user_id/YXNpZADpBWEd5aVhmUm1oRzNNRGlJQ2tHeHl6VGtmTzB1SGlpdVdZAdzVWOUpnbGhVWUR4RXFlUmF1VGpIUVRwekJ4d19JN0NBMXdRZAkdDUWpyX0k5MVllemdCWUhyZAWpxT053c0dXV00x/ Paul Knabenshue

    Spot on Review. Minimal emotional connection with the characters. Technical accuracy is superb. Best scene is the moon landing, with tension and a wonderful musical score. Not the greatest of space movies, but still welcome given how this story/theme may be a gamble for Hollywood. Thanks Amy for your passion on this material!

  • Christian Provstgaard

    Thank you for a really great review – I so much agree! I went to the Danish premier the other day and wrote a review with very many similarities.

    The thing that maybe made me the most sad, was the way Buzz Aldrin was portrait. In particular the two scenes regarding the death of Charlie Basset and Elliot See and the Apollo 1 fire, that killed his best friend Ed White, Buzz Aldrin is framed saying appallingly disrespectful and unfeeling lines. I am sure, he would never have said or behaved anything like that. The abuse of Buzz Aldrin is not founded in any publicly available historical evidence (please correct me if I am wrong) but rather contradicts it.

    If you care, you are welcome to read my review of “First Man” at https://cprovstgaard.blogspot.com/2018/10/first-man-film-review.html

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