A few days ago, I had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the new film “First Man”, based on Neil Armstrong’s life and his eventual walk on the Moon. It is a good movie, if a bit uncomfortable at times. I’m not much for high-drama, angst-dripping movies, and there is some of that here, though not completely unrealistic as such movies sometimes are. Throughout the movie, there is a common thread of loss for the Armstrong family, especially for Neil personally, and a lot of it would tend to make a person emotionally withdrawn. Neil seems introspective by nature in both his portrayal here and in what I’ve read about him in the past, and certainly the filmmakers bank heavily upon that in the script. That’s definitely part of my discomfort, of course, and it was amplified by how long the director dwelled on these introspective moments. How long did he dwell, you ask? The whole movie was a study in introspection as observed in third person… Sometimes, that became quite dull.
That said, there were highlights of Neil’s career that punctuated why he did the things that he did, and why there is so much value in the movie for the audience. The Gemini flight that went so well, until a stuck thruster on the spacecraft sent Neil and his crewmate Dave Scott tumbling at more than one revolution per second. Of course, history shows that they overcame that problem and survived the mission, and the film shows that too. And wow, how well did it show it! Honestly, it was one of the most insightful, most energizing bits of cinematic peril I think I’ve ever seen. The portrayal is a signature moment in Neil’s career as an astronaut, and the public may finally be able to really grasp what happened over the heads of the world back then.
Speaking of portrayals, there is one thing that did grate on my nerves in this film. Cleanliness. Or lack thereof. Oh, hell no, NASA facilities never were, and are not, the grime-ridden warrens of under-lit locations some of the scenes conveyed. There is one scene where during a particularly stomach-churning training session that Neil and another astronaut find themselves heaving in a facility restroom. I’ve been in cleaner restrooms in backwoods truck stops. Having worked around or within NASA facilities over the past few decades, I’ve seen a few of the various restrooms. While some of the postings have been old, originally-equipped places, they are kept clean and functional. Doubly so for anything the crews use. The idea that the astronauts were using a NEW facility that looked like it had been intentionally dipped in grease then a bucket of mildew, well, that’s nonsense.
The spacecraft were no exception here, and were pretty ridiculous. Without exception, every spacecraft looked from the get-go as if it had already flown more than one mission. The Apollo 11 command module was the biggest offender, with dirty work surfaces and banged up handles and such. The tools used by the crew for training are not for flight, which allows for some rough handling and wear and tear. However, the flight tools are usually tested for operational suitability, and after handling with great care, are packaged for each crew for use only on their mission. Again, it looked like their tools had been used to fix a big rig at a truck stop somewhere, and kicked around on the ground a bit. Used as a hammer, too. And rusty (rusty!) toggle switches. That bothered me a lot. I can go today and walk right up to the Apollo 17 command module and even at five decades old, there are no rusty, crusty switches. The Apollo 11 CM, and indeed all NASA spacecraft, have been and still are clean as an operating theater, at least on their first mission.
Honestly, I think this all comes down to impressions, those that the filmmakers wanted to create. The austere, even cold Neil Armstrong, the dirty, grim NASA environment, it seems that an intentional effort was made to forge a picture of a grim but determined life leading to a great achievement at the end of one major milestone. I can understand from the point of view a good dramatic work of art, and this film is certainly that, but as a space geek both professionally and personally, these inconsistencies stood out like a sore thumb. A greasy sore thumb with a small, open laceration off to one side of the nail, whilst doing brain surgery with torn gloves.
There is a lot more that I could say about this “First Man”, but I think my biggest impression is the stoic feeling of pushing through loss to excel at a worthy attempt at exceptional goals. That’s going to play well with audiences I think, and it should, because it’s very well done.