Mission Lab

‘First Man’ is gripping and inspiring (but not controversial)

October 12th, 2018 / By: Michael Foust / comments

‘First Man’ is gripping and inspiring (but not controversial)

Neil Armstrong is mere hours from going on a mission to the moon, but he has some unfinished business to do. He has to have an honest conversation with his two young sons. His wife, Janet, demanded it.

The boys know about his destination. They don’t, though, know how long he will be gone – or that he might die in the process.

“So you won’t be here for my swim meet?” his youngest son asks.

The oldest one – a little wiser – addresses the elephant in the room.

“Do you think you’re coming back?”   

Armstrong expresses confidence, but the older boy isn’t buying it. He knows this might be the last he ever sees his dad.

First Man (PG-13) opens this weekend, giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the quiet and private man who in 1969 became the first person to step foot on the moon. It stars Ryan Gosling (La La Land) as Armstrong, Claire Foy (The Crown) as Janet, and Jason Clarke (Chappaquiddick) as Armstrong’s friend, astronaut Ed White.

The film is largely a biopic about Armstrong, who is one of the most famous people in history but who shunned the spotlight even as his rocket mate Buzz Aldrin – the second person on the moon – flourished in it.

The movie opens in 1961 with Armstrong working as a test pilot and flying an X-15 to the edge of outer space. The story then switches to Armstrong’s home life and his battle to find medical help for his ailing daughter Karen, who has a brain tumor. She dies, forever changing his outlook on life. The already-quiet Armstrong grows even more reserved, refusing to discuss Karen’s death with anyone – even with his wife.

He then applies and gets accepted to the Gemini program in a move that provides him and Janet a fresh start on life. Of course, he eventually is chosen to be commander of Apollo 11.

The movie sparked controversy when it was learned that the planting of the American flag was not part of the film, with the director, Damien Chazelle, saying it would have interrupted the movie’s flow. After watching it, I can see his perspective. The moon scene takes less than 10 minutes in a two-plus hour movie. Armstrong is thinking about his daughter on the moon, having flashbacks of her life. He even leaves a personal memento related to her on the surface. We do see three images of an American flag during the scene, and seconds later – back on Earth – a joyful French woman says: “I always trusted America and I knew they wouldn’t fail.” The controversy was overblown.

Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!

(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)

Violence/Disturbing

Minimal/moderate. We see three astronauts, in a capsule for testing, seconds before they die in a fire. (We see fire rush through the capsule and hear their cries for help, but we don’t see their bodies.) Several scenes involving space flight are intense. Armstrong nearly blacks out when his Gemini capsule spins out of control. He nearly crashes in a test lunar lander, too. The film’s opening scene shows him in a plane on the edge of space, not sure if he will survive. 

Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity

None. Armstrong and his wife dance and share a brief kiss.

Coarse Language

Minimal/moderate. About 15 coarse words: H-ll (4), d—n (4), s—t (2), misuse of JC (2), misuse of “Jesus” (2), f-word (1).

Other Positive Elements

Armstrong is a loving father who enjoys playing with his children, even though he has trouble expressing it. (Not an uncommon trait among men at the time.)

In a scene at a funeral, he defends the deceased pilot when a superior suggests the pilot was to blame for the crash.

Armstrong is a humble man who spreads credit.  

Other Stuff You Might Want To Know

Characters, including Armstrong, drink beer. Several people, including Janet, smoke.

Life Lessons

Not surprisingly, First Man provides us lessons on courage and heroics in the face of possible death. There’s also a subtle lesson on teamwork: How did NASA accomplish everything they did with technology that’s far less advanced than my smartphone? But the biggest lesson in First Man involves the subject of tragedy and the healthiest ways to cope with it. The death of Armstrong’s daughter troubled him greatly, but he never talked about it. He held it inside the rest of his life. I kept wondering: Wouldn’t he have been better off talking to a counselor? A pastor? Even a friend? But he didn’t. Instead, we sneaks off to a room so he can cry, alone. He hid his emotions and his pain. It’s heartbreaking to watch.         

Worldview

Why should we explore space? Armstrong is asked this very question early in the movie, and he does a decent job answering it. Exploring space, he says, “changes your perspective.” Further, he says, “it allows us to see things that maybe should have seen a long time ago” but could not. He never mentions God, but the implication is that we are small compared to the rest of the universe. Space points to a grand plan and an intelligent creator, right?

Space exploration has scientific benefits. It has medical benefits, too. During the Cold War, it had political and even military benefits. But I would argue that one of the reasons we should explore space is theological: to discover and better appreciate God’s handiwork. Psalm 8 begins, “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory in the heavens.” Space declares God’s glory, and it does so in ways that God’s creation on Earth does not. That’s because space – that is, the universe – is bigger than anything on Earth. God created a big universe in part to give us a hint of his glory. It’s as if He is saying: See that big universe? I’m even bigger than that!  

What Works

I always have enjoyed space, and, not surprisingly, I enjoyed First Man. The recreated Gemini and Apollo launches are enjoyable. I felt like I was there. The moon scene is a strength, too. Also, First Man does a nice job explaining the Apollo mission to the non-space geek by using an old animated clip from the 1960s.  

What Doesn’t

The ending is a little odd. Also, First Man could have been rated PG by taking out a few words. Sadly, though, Hollywood believes moviegoers won’t support PG films.   

Discussion Questions

1. What is wrong with holding in emotions? Have you ever known anyone like Neil Armstrong?

2. Do you think the money spent on the space program should have spent elsewhere?

3. What did you think about the American flag controversy?

4. Why was Neil Armstrong willing to put his life on the line?

4. Name five risky professions in today’s world.

Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Rated PG-13 for some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.