Note, First Man is a fictional telling of a true story, and as such all references to real people in this essay reflect that of the characters in the film, not the actual individuals. Insights into characters come entirely from the film and do not necessarily reflect reality.
Damien Chazelle returns with his leading man from La La Land, Ryan Gosling, to make a very different film from the musical frolic. Gosling portrays Neil Armstrong, the titular first man to walk on the moon, but those expecting a film that could just as easily by titled Apollo 11 will be bemused by the film that was presented. First Man focuses on Neil as a man and his life; in doing so, it portrays a devastating depiction of masculinity.
After an opening scene of Neil flying an X-15 rocket plane and averting a crisis above the atmosphere to land safely, the emotional crux of the film is presented. In 1961 the Armstrongs’ young daughter Karen lost her battle with cancer despite Neil’s obsessive nature taking meticulous notes and reaching out to the best physicians in the world. At the funeral Neil is unable to maintain a calm demeaner while interacting with well wishers and instead shuts down leaving his wife Janet, portrayed by Claire Foy in an Oscar worthy role, to handle all the pleasantries.
Soon after, Neil applies for and is accepted for a position with the Gemini Project in Houston. Despite Neil’s apparent indifference to the honor, Janet sees the move as a potential new beginning for the family. Karen’s death cast a shadow over Neil; by leaving, Janet hopes that they both can start life anew, uninhibited by a trauma left behind.
The move to Huston it seems is unable to provide Neil a reprieve from the guilt he feels from Karen’s death. He detaches from any emotional aspect of life giving all his focus to his profession, leaving his wife and two boys with no emotional presence. In her want to understand what her husband is going through, Janet reaches out to his coworker and friend Ed White wondering if he ever talks about Karen with him or the other men at work. The response of no to her inquiry doesn’t surprise Janet, but it does force her to acknowledge the extent to which Neil has been emotionally stunted by their loss.
From this moment on, the film embodies the genre of tragedy. No longer is Neil the hero that’s taught about in history classes, but instead is a broken man whose masculine ideals have removed him from the world of the living. An effective robot, Neil continues to excel at his job, but becomes utterly incapable of existing outside of that environment. By suppressing his emotional needs through an unhealthy dedication to work, Neil is rewarded with the important Gemini 8 mission. This honor enforces the isolating habits he expresses. Work consumes his life as the difficulties of space travel are preferable to the difficulties arriving from his trauma. Science and engineering have definitive answers which are easier for Neil to comprehend than emotions and grief which are nebulous in nature.
When coworker and friend Elliot See dies in a crash, Neil’s isolation worsens. Caught in a moment of what he perceives as weakness, he abandons Janet and their sons at See’s funeral reception and retreats home where he gazes apathetically at stars in the backyard. Upon getting a ride home with Ed and his wife Patricia, Janet, lost to what Neil may be experiencing, pleads with Ed to try talking to her husband. Ed obliges Janet’s request and approaches Neil only to be rebuffed by him in a rare display of emotion. “Do you think I’m standing here in the backyard because I want to talk to someone” is Neil’s only response to his friend willing him away. The funeral of Elliot See resulted in a temporary break in Neil’s mask of emotionlessness. Because of Neil’s refusal to confront his demons, he ran from an emotionally stirring situation abandoning his family. As a man, he believed that his emotions were unsightly, and in his self-imposed exodus, he increased an ever-growing chasm between him and his family.
Two years after See’s death, Neil is seriously injured when he crashes a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. That evening, he returns home with half his face bloodied and bruised. Janet expresses immediate concern upon seeing the shape he’s in, but Neil, unable to accept her concern, fabricates a reason to immediately return to work ignoring his kids’ call for their father and further concerning a troubled Janet. His masculinity has again forced him to flee when others express concern for him. His detachment from his emotions and his refusal to look week extends in this moment to risking if not embracing physical harm. It’s as if he rejects the truth that humans are physically frail to project masculine strength. And yet, this self-destructive behavior is once again embraced by NASA awarding him Apollo 11 and with it the chance to be the first man to walk on the moon.
The climax of the film comes not with the landing or launch of Apollo 11, but hours before Neil leaves for the launch site. An ever-detached Neil fuddles around his bedroom and home office packing and repacking his suitcase for the trip and month-long quarantine to follow. A perturbed Janet confronts him and for the first time challenges him on his coldness. She opposes him on his avoidance in discussing with his children the reality of his mission, that there is a very real chance he may never come home. He attempts to deflect responsibility by insinuating that they must already be asleep, but Janet counters with the reality that they aren’t and accosts him for knowing that. After years of an emotionally absent husband, she may have given up on him providing emotionally for her, but she refuses to allow him to abandon their sons without so much as a warning.
A cornered Neil gives in to Janet’s demand and agrees to sit down and talk with their sons. Despite this resignation to his duty as a father, he still is unable to breach the subject with either of them. Only after Janet askes the boys if they have any questions for him is he able to address them. The younger son Mark questions about the length which their father will be gone, only now realizing that he will be without his father for a month’s time, but it’s the older son Rick who asks the pertinent question: is it possible that he won’t come home at all? At this Neil is forced to confront the truth and let his children know that he may not return. Conversation over, Mark emotionally hugs his father goodbye. Tellingly the older boy Rick forgoes the emotionally pleasantry to only offer his father a handshake.
This parting moment between Neil and Rick is heartbreaking in its significance. Multiple times earlier in the film, Rick would ask his father to play with him only for Neil to ignore his child in his dissociation from reality. Rick lived his early childhood with a father who was only partly there, but who he was told was a hero. In this moment, he is asserting his idolization of his father. Rick embraces the cold, emotionless masculinity that Neil taught him by rejecting the emotional hug.
The Apollo 11 mission proceeds as planned. Neil and Buzz Aldrin, Corey Stoll, land on the moon without much of a hitch. Upon opening the hatch, however, Neil is welcomed with the blistering silence and emptiness of space. All non-diegetic sound ceases at the moment that Neil steps out of the spacecraft, and yet the silence is deafening. Removed from all outside stimuli, he is forced to confront his trauma. Work effectively complete, there is nothing left for him to hide behind. He gathers himself enough to jump on the surface, say his infamous words, and give Buzz the go ahead to join him, but is then consumed by his long-sequestered trauma. The vastness of a nearby crater mirrors his pain, but also serves an apt resting place for his demons. He ceremoniously casts a beaded bracelet spelling the name of Karen into the void symbolically releasing him from his trauma. One week later, the Apollo 11 mission is completed and through the quarantine glass panels, Neil and Janet share a look of understanding.
This ending may serve as a necessity for existing in Hollywood. It provides a positive ending to the tragic preceding hours, but the film still acts as a cautionary tale. Neil’s refusal to emotionally process the death of his daughter resulted in years of emotional stress if not abuse to his family. Even worse is the potential that his debilitating coldness may have spread to his children afflicting another generation of Armstrongs. Claire Foy’s performance as Janet is the standout in recognizing this reality. At multiple times it looks as though she’s on the brink of leaving Neil and yet she persists. She cares for Neil, but his disaffectedness proves trying. Through her, the harmfulness of Neil’s emptiness realized. The juxtaposition of her love and emotion with his masculine frigidity embodies Chazelle’s brilliant character study. First Man is a story of which only a few dozen can relate to in plot, but in using that singular backdrop expresses a universal, cautionary truth about the downfalls of masculinity.