First Man – A Titanic Odyssey of The Right Stuff

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What could be more fitting that, on the heels of the month where we celebrate the incredible voyage of Christopher Columbus, I feel compelled to share my thoughts on the movie First Man. The film depicts the life of Neil Armstrong and culminates in his historic voyage to the moon, a feat of exploration that, at the time and even today, has been compared with Columbus for its historical significance.

Imagine combining 2001: A Space Odyssey with The Right Stuff, then throwing in a pinch of Titanic at the end. That describes First Man.

First things first. Speaking of 2001, there’s a joke going around that Stanley Kubrik allowed First Man to use the same sets he used for the fake moon landing in 1969. Seriously, though, watching this movie on the big screen (IMAX in Gates, to be specific), I could swear I heard “The Blue Danube” as Gemini 8 docked with Agena. To be honest, I don’t know if Strauss or any of the other composers used in 2001 made it onto the First Man soundtrack. Given the eerily similar cinematography (or should I say “CGI effects”), it just seemed that way.

In the sense First Man alluded to Kubrik’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, it provided an emotional milieu for a heroic epic in the vein of The Right Stuff.

As good as First Man was, though, something seemed off. And, no, it wasn’t because the film failed to show the flag planting on the moon. When you watch the film, you’ll understand why. It wasn’t to dis America. At this point in the movie, the moon walk serves only as a backdrop to Armstrong’s personal story. This is where Titanic comes in. I won’t reveal it here because, yes, even historical movies where we know the ending can have spoilers.

To best explain my misgivings, we need to go inside my head on the way to the theater. As I reflected on what I felt when I saw Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon, a strange thought occurred to me. In looking back on my own life, I wondered what my answer might be if someone asked me, “Chris, what’s your greatest accomplishment?” In that instant, I answered the question this way: “My greatest accomplishment is man landing on the moon.”

Consider this: I celebrated my ninth birthday a mere day before the launch of Apollo 11. Sure, it felt like a great birthday present, but I was in no way personally involved in the mission. Like many, I saw it unfold in real time on a grainy black-and-white television. Yet, still, for some reason, I feel it is a personal accomplishment.

With that as the set-up, going into First Man I expected to recapture some of that same emotion as the film progressed. I even expected to choke up.

Neither happened. Why?

As I watched the end credits roll before my eyes, the answer appeared before me. Listed as Executive Producer rose the name “Steven Spielberg.”

As enjoyable as Spielberg is when it comes to fiction, he has a sorry track record when it comes to non-fiction. If you recall Saving Private Ryan, the story ended on an empty note, with one of the primary characters failing to learn (i.e., to change) as you would expect in a good drama. Worse, this lack of change isn’t portrayed as a tragic event. It’s simply chronicled as just another incident.

First Man suffers from the same lack of commitment. It was a good movie. It could have been a great movie. If only it had just gone that extra mile. The movie has two plot lines. One was national – the space race. The other was personal – Neil Armstrong. First Man failed to deliver a satisfactory conclusion to either one. But it could have. Easily.

The Right Stuff showed how to do this. It, too, used multiple story lines. One involved test pilot Chuck Yeager (the personal plot line). The other focused on the Space Race (the national plot line embodied in the Mercury astronauts in general and Gordon Cooper in particular). Both plots ended with resolution. Gordon Cooper accomplished his dream. He became “the best pilot you ever saw.” Across the nation and at the same time in the movie (but 15 years earlier in real life), Chuck Yeager does what test pilots do: crash. As he emerges from the smoldering ruins after his successful ejection, there before your eyes appears a man, a real man, doing his job.

You felt good about Gordon Cooper. You feel better about Chuck Yeager. You feel great about the movie.

In First Man, Neil Armstrong, in real life a stoic man, had a very strong personal problem. That’s an OK thing for a movie. It adds drama. The challenge, though, is the real-life Neil Armstrong never showed any indication he would ever act in a way that put anything else ahead of the mission.

Unfortunately, in focusing on Armstrong’s personal drama, First Man ignored the more interesting dramatic element in Armstrong’s real life. It was a trait that would have synchronized perfectly with the Space Race subplot and cement the allusion to The Right Stuff. Ever since he was a young boy, Armstrong wanted to fly. He was 16 when he got his pilot’s license (before he got his driver’s license). Somehow, that fact was left on the cutting room floor.

Yet, for all this, the Armstrong personal plotline could have meant something if, at the end of the movie he finally told his wife what he had never told her.

As far as the Space Race plotline, First Man did a good job building it up. But then, just when it could spike the ball with the moon landing, the movie forgets it had this subplot. In the real-life pre-launch press conference, a reporter asked Armstrong if he agreed with Congress that only the American flag should be planted on the moon. Armstrong, in real life, essentially said it was above his pay grade to make that decision and Congress was the proper venue for that. Nonetheless he said he agreed with the decision. Buzz Aldrin confirmed this again just two months before the movie was released.

 First Man ignored this very real element of the Moon mission. Again, the Armstrong personal story possibly made it difficult to address both plotlines simultaneously. Yet, this is exactly what The Right Stuff did.

You might say, therefore, that while First Man was a good movie and a good story, it didn’t quite show that it had the right stuff.

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