Movie Review: First Man

This movie caught me by surprise. I went in expecting to feel again some of the exhilaration and joy I felt when I witnessed live television feed from the moon on that July day decades ago–a human being actually walking on the surface of another world. I knew nothing of Neil Armstrong’s personal life, and if this movie is accurate, its portrait of the man is unflattering. Broken by the death of his daughter, hollowed out by the deaths of fellow pilots and astronauts, Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is the mere shell of a man, unable to grieve, emotionally unavailable to his wife and children. In fact, he would have left for the moon without saying goodbye to his children had his wife (played by Claire Foy) not intervened. Of course, the difficulty for audiences is that when a main character plays an automaton, we are left without an emotional connection to him. We are bereft, as his family was.

Is it a good film? Yes. The acting is excellent, the space sequences are utterly convincing. But for me, the experience of seeing it was sad. Perhaps it burst an old illusion of mine–that the trip to the moon was a grand adventure. According to the film, it was closer to his wife Janet’s critique: “You’re just boys playing with balsa wood toys.”

I came away haunted by the final scene–Armstrong and his wife unable to touch each other through the glass of the quarantine room, a sobering image of their marriage. Sadly, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the empty, airless moon was a metaphor of his life on earth.

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