First Man: Trivializing the lunar landing


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First Man movie flightsuits, without American flag

This past weekend movie-goers finally got to see the world premiere of First Man, a movie based on the biography with the same title telling the life story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to step onto the surface of another world.

Prior to the movie’s release there was some controversy when Ryan Gosling, the actor playing Armstrong, said that they had left out the scene on the Moon when the astronauts planted the American Flag because their goal was to highlight Armstrong’s personal story as well as the global nature of the achievement.

Star Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong, defended director Damien Chazelle’s decision to omit the star-spangled moment when asked about it in Venice. “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it, ” Gosling said per the Telegraph. “I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible.”

The Canadian actor added that based on his own interviews with Armstrong’s family and friends, he doesn’t believe the pioneering astronaut considered himself an American hero. “I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero,” Gosling said. From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.” [emphasis mine]

Many on the right including myself, strongly criticized this statement. The movies director, Damien Chazelle, immediately responded, saying he was not trying to devalue the importance of the American achievement but to focus instead on telling Neil Armstrong’s personal story. “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon — particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.”

I decided I had been unfair to criticize the film without seeing it, and decided I would make a rare trip to a movie theater as soon as it was released to see it and then review it.

First, while I could note a variety of minor historical errors, the worst of which is the mispronunciation of Gemini (it was not pronounced “jim-i-NEE,” as everyone in this film does, but “gem-a-NI”), none of these errors are important. First Man tries very hard to get its facts right, and for this we should congratulate the filmmakers.

The film’s most obvious problem, which I think is what is turning off audiences, is how dislikeable it makes all the characters. The astronauts are almost all portrayed as morose, humorless drudges, with no exurberance at all. Armstrong in particular is seen as a glum, sulky, inarticulate, and introverted. He is also often portrayed as a jerk who repeatedly treats his wife and kids as after thoughts. As my wife Diane said, “I wanted to smack him upside the head.”

Without question many of the best 1960s astronauts often behaved as jerks to their families. The pressure of their work made it difficult for many to behave any other way. To get where they were forced them to focus every fiber of their being on their careers, often so much so that their families only rarely saw them. At the same time, many recognized this and tried to make up for it in other ways.

Moreover, while it is not unlikely that Armstrong himself did treat his family as carelessly as was portrayed in this movie, Armstrong was also the man who landed the first spacecraft on the Moon, and took the first human steps on another planet. If you are going to tell his story, you are guaranteed to turn people off if you focus mostly on his flaws and not on the greatness of his achievements.

Nor was Armstrong the only astronaut that the film portrayed badly. Buzz Aldrin was shown as a shallow, rude and undiplomatic person, someone whom everyone disliked intensely. As he was presented I can’t imagine anyone putting him on the first spacecraft to land on the moon.

Moreover, the movie focuses so much on Armstrong’s personal story that it misses the greater tale of America’s triumph, which by the way was also part of Armstrong’s personal story. Armstrong might have had personal reasons to get to the Moon, but he also knew how much he was a part of greater historical events. When he announced to the world, “Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed!” he did it with enthusiasm and a clear sense of joy. He knew that he had just accomplished something grand for his country, and he wanted to celebrate it to the entire world.

Ryan Gosling, the actor playing Armstrong, speaks the words “the eagle has landed” almost as an afterthought, as if this Canadian actor was uncomfortable playing an unabashed American.

Armstrong did not simply fly to the Moon for his own personal reasons. He did it for his country, and for the world. The film however refuses to consider the mission’s greater meaning, and so the achievement of the lunar landing essentially becomes trivialized.

In this sense First Man confirmed the suspicions aired several weeks ago by many on the right, including myself, that the moviemakers wanted to make believe the Apollo landings were not an American achievement, but a global one. While they did not exclude the presence of the American flag on the Moon, and also made it clear that this NASA effort was an American effort, the patriotic aspects of the Apollo missions are completely lost. So was its clear context within the battleground in the Cold War. We did not go to the Moon to simply prove Americans can accomplish hard things. We went, as Kennedy said, to prove that a free people can do it better than the communist/socialist system advocated by the Soviets. As Kennedy so boldly declared, “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.”

It is for this reason more than any other that I suspect the film is doing poorly. While First Man is supposed to be about an inspiring story, it tries very hard to inspire no one. It instead leaves one flat. It makes the entire effort to reach the Moon seem almost pointless, and heartless at the same time.

The punchline at the end of John Ford’s classic movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, probably said it best: “This is the west. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend.” First Man went for facts so much that it forgot there was a legend here. Audiences remember, however, and for this reason the word of mouth for the film has apparently been sour.

A note on the experience of going to the theater.

I, like many people, almost never go to the movies nowadays. It is much easier and cheaper to either put in a DVD or stream something from the comfort of my home. Moreover, the last few times Diane and I attended a movie, we found the experience unpleasant. The theater was generally dirty, and in one case there were technical problems (failure of the air conditioning) that forced us to leave and return the next day.

My experience yesterday seeing First Man once again reinforced these impressions.

First and foremost, the sound was too loud. Repeatedly both Diane and I had to cover our ears so the experience would not be painful.

The experience was also like entering a liberal bubble. The movie trailers all described films pushing liberal agenda items; feminist rights (Mary Queen of Scots), gay rights (Queen, Glass), spreading the wealth (Robin Hood). Furthermore, putting aside their underlying liberal agenda, all the films being touted were boringly predictable. Big special effects! Heroes fighting evil villains! Fight scenes over catwalks!

The sound for all the trailers was also too loud.

The commercials (ugh, who wants to pay someone to be subjected to commercials?) also seemed be part of that liberal bubble, all from big corporations that are increasingly lining up for the Democratic Party and its socialist political agenda.

And did I mention the sound was too loud?

During the movie I took a look around, and counted only about 25 people seated in a theater that could probably hold about over 600, probably more. I saw no one under 50 years old, most of whom were like me, children of the 1960s who wanted to see a recreation of the grand adventure that was Apollo. They did not get it, and were furthermore assaulted by a generally unpleasant experience. I would not be surprised if most came away resolving, as I did, to not come again, for a very long time.

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45 comments

  • wayne

    Hey Bob,
    Was it a matinee or evening show?

    pivoting:
    Apollo 11 Flight Journal -YouTube channel
    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnVYpEWcPdnotlCz7kriFxg

    these people have some of the best audio & period video, synced together and in sequential order.

  • Matt in AZ

    Out of curiosity Bob, what theater chain (if any) was your theater a part of? Up here in Phoenix, theathers are mainly Harkins (locally-owned) and AMC (a national chain). I’ve consistently had very good experiences with Harkins, but every single time I’ve been to an AMC theater it’s been abysmal. Endless ads, and 20+ minutes of trailers and PSAs before the movie mercifully starts. I’ve also suffered image and sound quality problems at some AMC theaters here.

    I’m sad to see your and others’ reviews turning out this way. I’d been trying to be excited to see this movie – the previews have been rather lackluster – and I had been hoping for the best.

  • Cotour

    All sadly was reasonably predictable, and was reasonably predicted.

    You can not get away from the agendas being put forth by these mass media (Propaganda) machines I.E. Hollywood who’s main agenda seems to be to bring America and what it represents down instead of raising it up.

    (Once again, who is in the process of buying up Hollywood? The Chinese. What is the agenda of the Chinese? World domination)

    None of this is by mistake or without thoughtfulness.

  • Phill O

    Another sad story of globalism and anti-Americanism!

  • Concur with the movie experience: too loud and way too many ads. I will go see movies for the immersive experience that home theaters cannot recreate.

    I would be concerned that in 30 – 40 years when there is no living memory of the pioneering space effort that only the Liberal narrative will remain. I would be concerned, but the colonists and entrepreneurs pushing into space now are doing the same work and taking the same risks. They will remember.

  • wayne

    Matt in AZ-
    I don’t know Arizona, is this anywhere near you?

    https://www.westwinddi.com/locations/glendale

  • Andrew_W

    I was left intrigued, was Armstrong really like that? As portrayed in the movie he came across as very morose and very much not a people person. I can’t say if that’s an accurate portrayal, but his two sons would be able to make that judgment, and the author of First Man, James R. Hansen, would also be in a good position to judge, and they were all happy with how Armstrong was portrayed.

    How Buzz Aldrin was portrayed made me smile, I love Aldrin for his continued commitment to space, I suspect his blunt directness is closer to the mark than some want to admit. People who are hyper-partisan all dream that their heroes to be perfect, they never are.

    I went and saw it at 6 pm on Wednesday, there were about 20 people in a theater that would hold just over 200, those there were mostly older people.

    The theater was really nice, I didn’t pay any attention to the ads, so whatever they were about, they didn’t distress me.

    Mr. Zimmerman will be shocked to learn that not only was Neil Armstrong played by a foreigner, Janet Armstrong, Ed White and Bob Gilruth were also portrayed by foreign actors.

  • eddie willers

    How in God’s name can you mispronounce Gemini?!
    Two seconds at youtube would disabuse that notion.

    Maybe they are trying to say Americans were clueless bumpkins.

    Anyway…the last time I walked into a movie theater was for the Batman movie. The one starring Michael Keaton.

  • wayne: It was a 5 pm show, which might have contributed to the small attendance, except that there was no one there to see the evening show when we left. No one.

  • Matt in AZ: It was AMC, so my experience matches yours.

  • Andrew_W

    “How in God’s name can you mispronounce Gemini?!
    Two seconds at youtube would disabuse that notion.”

    I spent half an hour on Youtube watching footage from Gemini 8, about half were saying GeminEE, half GeminI. The media seemed to prefer GeminEE.

  • wayne

    haven’t seen the movie.

    This however is really good as-it-happened techy stuff:
    Apollo 11 landing from PDI to Touchdown
    https://youtu.be/RONIax0_1ec
    15:47

  • Jollster

    Great review Mr Z. I enjoyed the movie (as stated elsewhere in this site), but I agree, Armstrong was silent and glum all the time. I guess the times he was happy and normal don’t make for gripping story telling. What did you think of the Saturn 5 launch and the Falcon Heavy sound dubbed in?

  • Jhon

    “First and foremost, the sound was too loud.”

    You’re getting old Mr. Zimmerman.. (G)

    “eddie willers
    October 18, 2018 at 12:14 pm
    How in God’s name can you mispronounce Gemini?!”

    He’s Canadian, don’t cha know…..

  • wayne

    Bob–
    excuse if I missed it– weekend or weekday?

    – in my area (anecdotally)- we have practically a regional monopoly– same family company owns like’ 5 out of 7 theaters, and while all are multi-plexed they aren’t mega-plexed, but it’s nothing like seeing a movie in an “old-timey” righteous 1930’s era theater. (Snacks-n-stuff are outrageously priced as well.) Matinee attendance drops off dramatically when school starts in the Fall, and in-general people who have jobs don’t go to movies during the week-day. Thursday-Saturday evening’s still appear to be the most popular. But when I think about, few people I know actually go out to see a movie.

    box office mojo:
    First Man
    3,640 opening theaters,
    domestic gate to date (6 days) =$20 million (foreign is $10 million)
    Production budget is listed as $59 million

    https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=firstman.htm

  • wayne: Weekday, on a Tuesday night, so obviously, the numbers will be less. Still seemed very small to me.

  • wayne

    -thank you.

    box office mojo says the 3,640 theaters reporting on Tuesday, took in an *average* of $490. (and at what…$8/ticket that’s like’ 60 people. Or less cuz’ it runs on more than one screen, on average.)

    Hope everyone bought the $12 pop-corn, 90% of the gate goes to the studio in the first week.
    But…AMC, is owned by the Chi-Coms if I recall correctly. Chinese own most all the screen in the US and Canada….

  • wayne

    AMC… it’s not your fathers movie-theater…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AMC_Theatres

  • Cotour

    ” Chinese own most all the screen in the US and Canada….”

    Maybe we are a bit too open to “free trade” and foreign (Read: Enemy country) company’s owning American corporations that pump out propaganda into the brains of the peoples of the world.

    Combine, Amazon, Google and China and what do you have?

    Talk about “New World Order”, I suspect a line may need to be drawn.

  • Cotour

    This is the more important metric:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wanda_Group

    On second thought the Chinese would never attempt to influence people with their particular brand of self serving propaganda. Im sure its just me.

  • Matt in AZ

    Wayne: yep, that Glendale drive-in is indeed near me, though I’ve never been to it.

    Harkins Cine1 is also near me and is -amazing- with its 80ft screen, Dolby Atmos, and reclining seats. It’s a few dollars more than a regular theater, but well worth it. Harkins has a few more like it around the valley, and have also shown the recent 70mm releases of Dunkirk and 2001: A space Odyssey. They really do try to excel.

    https://www.harkins.com/cine1

    I once saw Inception at a theater with D-Box seats, which are programmed to vibrate, rock and swerve along with scenes in a movie, but it was somewhat distracting for me. There a few other theaters around here with recliners that have a waiting staff that serves food and drinks throughout the movie, but I found the sounds of clinking silverware very irritating.

    And Bob: I see there is a Harkins theater in the Tucson area. Roadhouse and Foothills also have some good reviews. These may be worth a shot the next time you’re willing to pony up for a big screen viewing.

  • Matt in AZ: I will definitely keep your Harkin recommendation in mind the next time I am forced to go to a movie theater.

  • wayne

    Cotour-
    yepper, Wanda took over AMC fairly recently.

    We do not have a lot of AMC screens on the Lake Michigan shoreline region (or in the State as a whole, mainly mid /lower Michigan and the Detroit metroplex area). We had our own movie-theater “mogul” in Michigan, see:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Loeks
    [His ’empire’ morphed after his death, but remains American owned. Large number of screens in the Midwest.]
    (unfortunately, an innovator in the Mall-based megaplex screen concept.)

    Matt in AZ;
    good stuff.
    –that drive-in looks interesting! (those are getting rare.)
    –we have one drive-in left in my area of Michigan, 4 screen, they are currently in their “Halloween October” mode before they shut down for the Winter: Rocky Horror, Halloween original, Psycho, that sort of thing…
    -If I want an IMAX screen, that’s a 50 minute drive.

  • wayne

    My plug for an excellent “old-timey” midwestern theater:
    “Kalamazoo State Theater” downtown Kalamazoo, Michigan.
    They don’t show a lot of movies anymore but it’s very nice inside. (it’s bigger on the inside, than it is on the outside)

    (Yes, there is a Kalamazoo…it’s north of Mayberry) (they make Corn Flakes however, in Battle Creek)

    I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo
    Glenn Miller et al
    https://youtu.be/WQQfK8Bqkw0

  • wodun

    I have to agree with John. The sound issue is a sign of ageing not a problem with the experience. I am sympathetic because I have started to notice this when I go to the theatre, just another example of old age kicking in. Loud sounds can be immersive. The roar of the rocket launch in Interstellar was great, and also very loud like it would be if you were at a real launch.

    Where I live, there are a few theatres to choose from and some have the standard seating and others have the recliners. The recliners are nice but they often cost a premium, especially if you buy your tickets and select your seats online. Convenience fee they call it.

    Here is a good review of the movie from Bill Whittle and crew, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6aUAENG1cWc

  • wodun: So, according to you guys, you are okay with the theater alienating a good percentage of its older audience with sound that is so painful it drives them away.

    From my perspective, this is a very bad business model, and illustrates why these theaters have such a limited customer base.

  • Andrew_W

    Mr. Zimmerman, I cant imagine what you mean by “So, according to you guys, you are okay with the theater alienating a good percentage of its older audience . . . ” personally, I don’t care, I don’t have shares in cinema companies and don’t have a problem with the sound levels I’ve experienced.

    Being a strong advocate of free markets and that business decisions should be made by the businesses responsible according to their judgment, I’ll assume that they know what they’re doing. At face value I’d guess that given the rarity of your own visits to the cinema – evidently not, at least until now, a result of the sound levels, and compared to the frequency at which younger people obviously attend cinemas, I’m guessing that the cinema owners are getting things right for the vast bulk of their regular audience.

  • Judy

    “The first man to step on the surface of another word.”

    Might want to update that, lest everyone think they were playing Scrabble. :)

  • Jason Hillyer

    Bob, although I agree with you on almost all your analysis, as well as your piece on this movie, I had a different experience, though I will start with what we have in common. I despise movie theaters. The dirty parts I can get past, but the people on their phones coupled with my seat always being kicked (seriously, why?) makes for a miserable experience, and one that distracts from the film that either I, or my gracious parents, paid for. Good news is there is a theater close to where I live that has seats (recliners, actually!!) spaced out well, and this makes movie theaters much more tolerable.
    I must say, the movie was inspiring to me in many ways. Although Neil was portrayed as a solemn and slightly careless guy when it came to his personal life, I chose not to judge this aspect because I don’t know much about Neil, other than his accomplishments at NASA. While I disagreed with Gosling’s statements, I didn’t feel as if the movie took anything away from the grand adventure and accomplishment that the first Moon Landing was, and I admit this might have been caused by me being so into the high definition shots of the Saturn V liftoff or the beautiful opening scene in the X-15. I still got goosebumps from the whole adventure, but again, this might just be because I get goosebumps whenever someone mentions the word “Apollo”, but the movie itself was a marvelous spectacle, and we haven’t seen the Moon Landings ever portrayed in this way before.
    Again, I acknowledge the entire aspect of beating the Soviets was left out, even though I can’t imagine Neil wasn’t thinking about that, but I will have to do further research on his life to find that out. I felt as though the main point was to show how hard his job was, both on him and his family, and the feeling of success and joy that you get from say, Apollo 13, was left out, but if you can fill this in with your own imagination, the movie becomes much more beautiful.

  • Calvin Dodge

    Does the book have this same problem? Or is it worth reading?

  • Richard Malcolm

    “We went, as Kennedy said, to prove that a free people can do it better than the communist/socialist system advocated by the Soviets.”

    And yet, ironically, the United States ended up doing it better in a very statist way. Apollo made use of many private sector contractors, of course, but it was a state-directed and funded operation from start to finish, with relentless use of cost-plus contracts seeded out in more than a few cases to contractors who were in the right place with the right congressional fairy godmothers. And it was so successful that we ended up with the Apollo Cargo Cult that you and Rand have written about at such length, with such frustration.

    And of course if we were going to beat the Russkies to the Moon, that’s pretty much the only way we could have done it, given the primitive state of the technology and the tight schedule. It is up to us only now, in the early 21st century, to show for the first time what a free society can do in space, when it is finally in position to act in a relatively free and competitive way. In this respect, we have made real progress since 1969.

    And on other ways, of course, we have declined: I have not seen FIRST MAN yet, but I am already tempted to contrast it with the other most notable screen treatments of Apollo – “Apollo 13” (1995) and HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” (1998). Both clearly worked to capture the *American* sense of this effort, and all the attendant aspirations. The astronauts were portrayed as flawed but likable, even admirable. But these were also 1990’s productions, headed by baby boomer film makers (Howard, Hanks, etc.) who had grown up with Apollo as children and were still deeply inspired by it, and able to identify with the almost completely white male composition of the effort. FIRST MAN, by contrast, was mostly made by film makers with no memory at all of Apollo, or even the Cold War, and therein lies a tale, I suspect.

  • Richard Malcolm

    P.S. Re: The movie’s limited box office appeal.

    I have not, as I said, seen it yet; but I suspect that even with a more sympathetic treatment of the astronaut characters, this film was not going to be a blockbuster. Historical flicks rarely do. It’s a pity, because the effort to put a man on the Moon in 1969 has to be, in many senses, the most remarkable accomplishment in human history.

    Still, it’s a shame that Buzz seems to have gotten such brutal treatment on screen. He may not have been Jim Lovell, but he deserved better than that, and Neil would, I think, have been the first to say so.

  • F16 Guy

    I have heard from several sources that a “profitable” movie grosses THREE TIMES the production cost.
    Based on info above, this movie would have to gross $180 Million to be profitable.

  • Calvin Dodge – the book is absolutely worth your time reading. Much better than this limp buzzkill of a movie.

    Seriously, what a wasted opportunity. Armstrong was a measured, quiet man who also had a famously dry sense of humor. I think they showed that maybe once.

    And there is no way brand new, never flown spacecraft looked as beat up and dingy as the Millennium Falcon. Geez.

  • wayne

    F16 Guy-

    yes– that’s a good rule-of-thumb. In general (depending on studio & title) the advertising & promotion budget can equal or exceed the production budget, and both those get recouped immediately off the top.
    –“profitable” is a nebulous concept in movie-accounting; depends who has front-end or back end-money.
    And there’s a tension between the distributor and the exhibiter. The studio gets a massive cut of the gate, but on a declining weekly basis. Your average theater doesn’t make a lot on showing movies until 4-6 weeks in, snacks are where they make money.

    Box Office Mojo has interesting stats. They even have inflation-adjusted & lifetime gross going back to Wizard of Oz and Gone with the wind.

    One joke in Hollywood concerns the “18 different ways to calculate gross vs. net, depending on who needs to be cheated out of their royalties…”

  • David

    I will usually gravitate to a well made documentary rather than a Hollywood film… this film illustrates why. For me, HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon” was the best miniseries that told our story of that incredible decade.

  • wayne

    launching the rescue ship in the eye of a hurricane

    Marooned 1969
    https://youtu.be/yD1hbplN4DE
    6:53

  • Jim Jakoubek

    For the most part, you Mr. Zimmerman are right and I agree with what you say on your thoughts about this movie.

    Then there was this:

    “Armstrong was also the man who landed the first spacecraft on the Moon, and took the first human steps on another planet.”

    Still having problems with the “planet” thing?……

    Let me help out.

    A planet is a body that :

    orbits the sun
    has sufficient mass to be round, or nearly round
    is not a satellite (moon) of another object
    has removed debris and small objects from the area around its orbit.

    As usual glad I could help.

  • Richard Malcolm

    Hello Jim,

    Perhaps, like some of us, Bob simply doesn’t accept the IAU definition of “planet.”

  • gary meyer

    so we should not see the movie because the theater you saw it in played the sound too loud…….OK

  • wayne

    Domestic gate (w/ weekend estimate included) is $30 million (+ $25 million foreign) and with 10 days in release. 59 million production budget.
    -Halloween is killing it– $77 million domestic with 14 million foreign, 3 days release, weekend estimate. –with $10 million production budget.

    Ref: the sound in theaters.
    I don’t think the major take away from Mr. Z’s review is “IF sound is bad, THEN don’t see it.” But I will agree with him that sound-level can be an issue. Personally I don’t like the dolby surround sound, it ‘feels’ too compressed and they punch up the high notes. That being said, I saw a Marvel movie a few months ago and the previews were way too loud, and before I could complain I saw 1/2 dozen other people complaining, and it was re-adjusted.

  • Richard Malcolm: You should read my book Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, especially my concluding chapters. I write in detail how the Apollo program taught America all the wrong lessons, exactly as you note here.

  • Phil

    Agree with you 100% Bob. I haven’t seen a Hollywood movie in a theater for years now. The anti-American agenda was merely the last straw. The experience quality had been declining for years. Very interesting that a large number of screens are Chicom-owned (including the AMC chain here in Mexifornia). It explains how the leftist agenda seems to be accelerating. I’m proud to say I haven’t in a long time contributed a dime to an industry dedicated to the downfall of our culture, and I won’t be making an exception for this First Man trash.

  • wayne

    Domestic gate through October 28 (w/ 17 days in release) is about $37 million (+ $36 million foreign)

    https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=firstman.htm

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