The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …
First Man screenplay written by Josh Singer and directed by Damien Chazelle. Based on First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, written by James R. Hansen
Neglecting the lineage of Neil Armstrong marked the first misstep (pun intended) of the filmmakers’ attempt to adapt the life of the famed astronaut.
Biographer James R. Hansen remarked that Neil absolutely insisted that his story begin centuries before, in the borderlands of Scotland and England. The “American Genesis” tale, as Armstrong termed it, led to his birth in our country’s heartland, the fine state of Ohio. It is no coincidence then, that the first moonwalker lays claim to a continent then Christian in heritage, and a community upbringing even more so.
The book’s opening chapter reminded me of the motto on my Spanish national soccer team warm-up jacket, “Plus Ultra.” The national motto is a reversal of non terrae plus ultra (no further land beyond). Pre-Christian Spanish societies saw the Strait of Gibraltar as the edge of the known world. Following the Age of Exploration of Catholic Spain, King Charles V (also Holy Roman Emperor) adopted “further beyond” as his personal motto, in turn inspiring the astronauts of his day, the naval explorers who discovered the New World.
The film also makes no mention of Neil Armstrong’s military service in the Navy. He flew armed reconnaissance in the Korean War and once ejected from a damaged plane. I realize there’s only so much a filmmaker can reveal in a two-hour film, but Damien Chazelle’s omission makes for distracting storytelling. Before debarking for the Apollo 11 moon mission, Neil and his wife sit their boys down for a heavy-handed “Dad might not come back” talk. Wouldn’t this conversation have taken place awhile back, with the peril involved in any of the previous test missions? The NASA Gemini programs were composed almost entirely of former military pilots. The pilots’ wives didn’t need a flight to the moon to initiate a conversation about the dangers of flight exploration.
The greatest flaw of the film adaptation, however, we find in the filmmaker’s unnecessary accretions. Neil (Ryan Gosling) and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) tragically lost the life of their two-year old daughter. By all accounts, including his own, Neil stoically attended the funeral and burial and never made another mention about it. This caused a strain in the marriage (the two eventually divorced), culminating in Janet’s disappointment that her husband did not include any trinket of their daughter’s in his Personal Preference Kit.
The movie can’t resist centering Neil’s internal struggle around this non-story, going as far as inventing an infant bracelet that Neil reaches into his PPK and tosses into a moon crater. We see a tear drop fall from the reflection of his helmet visor. Again, a little deference to Neil’s actual raising up would have inspired better characterization.
Statistically speaking, the small-town Midwest produces astronauts at a vastly disproportionate clip to the rest of the country. The correlation is not entirely clear, but I’d take a guess to say bitter, harsh Middle West winters provide the gusto for the cold, rational, on-the-spot decisiveness required of space travel. Instead, we suffer through an emotional tearfest at movie’s end. If this were the historical case, newspapers would have shouted “Extra, extra read all about it: Man weeps on Moon!”
After all, these were “steely-eyed missile men,” a compliment bandied about in 1960s NASA, meaning hardened test pilots who could keep their cool and think fast in emergencies. This mindset was on display in Apollo 13 and in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon (among the producers for that were Howard, along with Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks and producer Brian Grazer). Perhaps Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer didn’t extend themselves as much as the previous filmmakers did to understand the psychology of such men.
So, while the bulk of the film follows a similar path blazed by the Mercury missions in 1983’S The Right Stuff, Chazelle’s renders the Apollo subjects with the wrong constitution. Characterization aside, the film is not typically compelling as a space mission, either. Ron Howard creates much greater suspense in Apollo 13.
Maybe Howard made the smarter decision, to a pick a failed success mission where the astronauts bypassed their moon landing. Because when we arrive at the moon in First Man, it feels staged, like we never leave the green screen of the Hollywood stage at which it was shot. The real Neil Armstrong, facing the incredulity of moon-landing deniers, said the only thing harder to do than landing on the moon would be to realistically fabricate it. The Oscar winning director of La La Land proves just how difficult that task indeed is.
Image: Courtesy Universal Pictures/DreamWorks
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