I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
There’s a thing I learned about the Moon landing from last year’s First Man that was something I can’t believe I’d never heard before. Or maybe I had heard it but the significance of it hadn’t previously registered. It’s this: Though Neil Armstrong had flown and seen action in the Korean war, he was — unlike most of the other astronaut candidates, who were active-duty — no longer a military pilot. He was a civilian when he joined NASA’s astronaut program. The first human being to walk on the Moon could have been a soldier; chances were good that he would be. But instead, the first person on the Moon was, first and foremost, a geek.
This is thrilling to me.
Here, in filmmaker David Fairhead’s excellent companion to both First Man and the recent Apollo 11, we meet the “nerdy engineer” — Armstrong’s description of himself — an Ohio farm boy who dreamed of a life in aviation, earned his pilot’s license before he could drive a car… and landed a tin can on the Moon before he took a stroll outside on our dead satellite neighbor. This is a deeply moving documentary portrait of a modest, almost incredibly unassuming man, yet one whom it is so tempting to see, in retrospect, as positively destined for his historic voyage, with what seems to have been precisely the right mix of derring-do and cool-under-pressure reserve required to pull off such an astounding adventure.
Armstrong isn’t hagiography: Fairhead includes new interviews with Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark, whose reminiscing doesn’t cover only what it was like to watch — and hear, and feel — their father’s massive Saturn V rocket blast off from Cape Kennedy as very young children, but also the devastating impact Armstrong’s career had on their mother, Janet. By the time the film gets around to covering the couple’s divorce, there’s the weight of inevitability about it, as if of course being absent from your family’s lives, even if you were preparing to go to the Moon, is going to have a negative impact. There’s quiet acknowledgement here of the personal sacrifices made in the pursuit of knowledge and progress… which includes unasked-for, unchosen sacrifices made by those in the orbit, no pun intended, of “great men.”
Armstrong died in 2012, but his presence is still palpable here via the narration, by Harrison Ford (The Secret Life of Pets 2, Blade Runner 2049) reading Armstrong’s own words. Reticent the astronaut may have been, but he still has important things to say to us today, wisdom acquired through his almost literally unique perspective on our world. He went to the Moon and looked back and saw a planet that needs to be “protect[ed] from its own population.” That is arguably more urgently true now than it ever has been before, and if we take anything at this half-century anniversary of the Moon landing, this might be the most essential. We see here, in this absolutely terrific film, just how difficult it was to send just a few very carefully chosen men to a place that was so inhospitable that they could not survive there without massive technological assistance, and even then not for long. We cannot afford to take our planetary life support for granted, because there is nowhere else for us to go. And we can take that from someone who has been out in the nowhere.