In 1969 the Apollo 11 team of U.S. astronauts reached the moon and Neil Armstrong famously became the first man to set foot on the lunar surface. Accompanied by Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Armstrong accomplished a task 8 years and $24.5 billion in the making—a task that captured not only the zeitgeist of the 1960s, but also became memorialized as an American national myth, catapulting Armstrong and Aldrin (in particular) to international fame and ensuring that Armstrong’s first words on the moon—“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”—would never be forgotten. As often happens with historical accounts that take on the qualities of myths, however, the figures within them also become mythologically proportioned, both stripping them of their humanity and elevating them to paragons of humanism.

In such stories, it can be difficult to know what these men (and women) were actually like. Just as the “heroes” in the Greek stories were demigods—half-god, half-human—Americans also make demigods of our national heroes in much the same sense. Certain figures in our history become tethered to our national identity, their stories not necessarily hijacked, but told in ways most pleasing to us. First and foremost, our heroes are patriots. Patriots are most often Christian (in form if not in function), who love America and the flag, and the way their stories are told must reflect these virtues overtly, even if it does the men and women themselves a disservice.

Certain figures in our history become tethered to our national identity, their stories not necessarily hijacked, but told in ways most pleasing to us.

Neil Armstrong’s story has previously been understood in the context of history—as a figure in the great patriotic space race with the Russians in a time of Cold War, when he and his fellow astronauts were symbols of hope and progress to a fearful nation. For all anybody really knew about them, they were superheroes who transcended the limits of understanding to do the impossible, while bearing tribute to American ideals. In preparing to tell the story of Neil Armstrong for Damien Chazelle’s First Man, screenwriter Josh Singer found himself faced with the daunting task of taking this great American mythological hero and figuring out how to tell his actual story. It was a task he did not take lightly, and he researched and worked on the screenplay for four years. “I was just knocked out by how much we don’t know about Neil Armstrong,” he said. “We wanted to show the sacrifice, challenges, and costs that… hadn’t been shown before,” Singer explained in an interview with Alissa Wilkinson for Vox.

But telling and showing such things reveals the humanity of the national hero, and that can challenge our very notions of heroism and greatness. Both Singer and director Chazelle understood—and aimed for—that. How we tell the stories of our national heroes matters just as much as the truth of the stories themselves. In watching First Man, I got the impression Chazelle took the handling of the material Singer gave him extremely seriously. His first concern in telling Neil Armstrong’s story seemed to be in the framework of conveying the story to the audience. Assuming an audience familiar with Armstrong as a public figure, Chazelle framed Armstrong’s famous exploits around who he was as a man: as first a husband, father, neighbor, and friend. He proposes to the audience that we cannot understand Neil Armstrong truly as an astronaut (or American hero) at all without first understanding him as someone who is just like you or me. Despite claims to the contrary, Damien Chazelle’s First Man doesn’t strip Neil Armstrong of his patriotism, but it does imbue him with fully fleshed humanity.

In First Man, Armstrong and his wife, Janet, become people with whom we can empathize. The movie shows them having a good, but imperfect marriage. He has rambunctious, often ill-behaved children, and he spends summer days at the pool with neighborhood friends. He suffered the tragic, early loss of their daughter, Karen, at age two, from complications due to a malignant brain tumor; Armstrong is shown to struggle his entire professional life with suppressed grief and an inability to cope with loss in a healthy way.

Unlike similar movies of heroic ambition, the drama that propels the plot of First Man is not training for the various space missions or demonstrations of the hero’s personal prowess, but rather the fragility of Armstrong’s family and friends and the constant shoring up of his mental state. By framing Armstrong’s ambition to go to the moon within the personal drama of everyday life, his trajectory becomes grounded in the pains, and joys, we all feel or have felt or will certainly feel (if we haven’t already). Neil Armstrong is you and me. A spouse, a parent, a friend, a neighbor. Driven to achieve an impossible task not for lofty political or nationalistic ambitions, but for a daughter he could not save and friends he lost along the way.

Why is it important to view Neil Armstrong this way? The stories we tell of our national heroes shape our national identity. He was the first man to walk on the moon, but he was a man first, along with all the foibles that come with manhood. That is an important reminder. Where does Armstrong’s greatness come from? Is he even great? Is it heroic that a man landed on the moon? It’s okay to ask these questions of Neil Armstrong because he was only a man, and we must not make gods of men. He may have achieved kleos, but before that, and after, he parented children (sometimes poorly), he loved his wife (imperfectly), and he was a good friend and dedicated to his job.

Were it not for Karen, the daughter he lost, it’s likely we would have no myth of Neil Armstrong at all. In his biography, his sister says he joined the space program after Karen’s death to “invest [his] energies in something very positive.” The movie sits on this aspect of Armstrong’s story—deep in his grief at first, allowing you to see a broken man sobbing for his lost little girl, and all along in flashbacks at key points of his striving to get to the moon. He is never really made whole again, not even on achieving the impossible task of walking on the moon. In filming the story like this, Chazelle brought even the moon landing down to earth, because as a parent, I can’t help but feel the same. If I were to lose a child, no fulfillment of personal ambition—no matter how great—would ever fill that hole.

Usually these sorts of movies are celebrations of heroism and the indomitable human spirit, but in displaying Neil Armstrong as a fallible, often broken man, the movie does him—and all of us—much greater justice. The first man to go physically farther than any other man in human history bore with him all our human limitations. Rather than being a celebration of what we can do by our own grit and skill and determination, First Man displays what we feel when we get to the end of ourselves. It makes no real mention of God, but in breaking down the idol of humanism (and the very particular, pernicious idol of American bootstrapping humanism) it reveals our need for God. It at least begs us to stare into the void and ask what is staring back, and reminds us that there are many towers we can build to the heavens, but at the end of the day, as Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) shouts at a critical moment in the movie, “[we] don’t have anything under control.”

“Neil was extremely humble,” Ryan Gosling, who portrays Armstrong in the film, said of him when First Man opened at the Venice Film Festival. Everyone knows Armstrong’s accomplishments. We didn’t need a movie about Neil Armstrong the first man to walk on the moon. Our country needed a movie about the real Neil Armstrong—just a humble man who did something extraordinary in the midst of his humanity. If you let it, it’s the sort of movie that can change your perspective on heroism, on humanism, and on your place in the universe.


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