It was never going to be about a flag. First Man—Damien Chazelle’s new film following Neil Armstrong in the eight years leading up to his historic flight to walk on the surface of the moon—is an intensely personal film, less about NASA or spaceflight or grand national triumphs, and more about the pressures and sacrifices of the individuals caught up in the push to expand humanity’s reach.
Armstrong, as depicted in the film, and as described by those who knew him, was a guarded, serious man, calm under pressure, focused absolutely on his mission. His ability to keep his cool under extraordinary circumstances saved his life on multiple occasions, some of which are depicted so vividly in the film that you can’t help clutching the armrest, despite knowing exactly how it will all turn out in the end. While First Man is, fundamentally, not a space movie, it is a fascinating and visceral experience of early spaceflight, in all its shaky, creaky, occasionally exploding glory.
Throughout the film, we are reminded that every sublime perspective of Earth from afar, or of the surface of another world, only comes about through body-breaking, metal-shearing brute force that was equal parts precision engineering and experimental wire-and-twine boundary pushing. The early U.S. space program was not smooth or glamorous, and it was not safe. Each advance toward the astonishingly successful moon missions came at the cost of trial-and-error test runs to build technology and skills, and many lives were lost along the way. One of the film’s most chilling scenes, and one of the few taking the focus away from Armstrong himself, was the depiction of the Apollo 1 disaster, a particularly gruesome tragedy that briefly delayed flights to the moon while NASA learned from its mistakes. The program carried on.
Those who walk into First Man expecting a film reveling in nationalistic triumph will be disappointed.
It’s about a man doing a job—one that has never been done before, but one that is a job, nonetheless. And it’s about what it takes, as an individual human being, to push boundaries into the unknown. The film never shies away from that humanity, and never gives into the temptation to make Armstrong a sanitized hero and symbol of America. There is a flag on the moon, but there are also footprints. This is a film about what it was like to be the person wearing those boots, taking one small step, and then another.
Dr. Katie Mack is an astrophysicist at North Carolina State University, studying the universe from beginning to end. She tweets as @AstroKatie, and her website is www.astrokatie.com.