Reel Dad: First Man is a respectful look at a historic moment

Now that the Oscars have come and gone, it’s interesting to consider some of the also-rans.

Last fall, First Man was supposed to be the movie of the year.

Its director, Damien Chazelle, is the movie mastermind who hit it big with the Oscar-winning Whiplash followed by winning an Oscar for directing the mega hit La La Land. And First Man, when first shown at film festivals last fall, seemed destined to find itself in the running for this year’s top Academy Awards.

And then the movie opened. And fizzled.

First Man

Months later, after taking a fresh look at First Man, it’s easy to see why this film emerged from the cinema kitchen a flop despite boasting the right ingredients.

The story, as the title suggests, follows the journey of Neil Armstrong to become the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. We first meet Armstrong, at work, as the pilot of a fighter jet trying to conquer the realities of high-altitude maneuvers and, at home, as the father of a young daughter trying to conquer the realities of cancer. This parallel view, of the man on the job and the man in the home, continues throughout the film, providing a degree of narrative continuity in a story that otherwise feels somewhat jumbled.

Fast forward to Armstrong’s selection to become an astronaut, starting to progress through the NASA program, conquering a harrowing experience while on a Gemini flight orbiting the earth and, ultimately, being selected to command Apollo 11 to become the first to land on the moon. Because anyone familiar with history will remember the moment when Armstrong stepped on the moon — no spoiler alert required — there’s little suspense in the finale. The only question is how Chazelle, and his screenwriter, Eric Roth, will tell the story.

That’s where the problems begin. Without a lot of drama in Armstrong’s professional ascension — except for occasional disappointments, deaths of friends, and challenges of that troubled Gemini mission — Chazelle is left without a lot of tension to develop. So he enters the Armstrong home to explore the dynamics that professional demands can place on domestic balance, giving us a series of short, clipped sequences that indicate everything is less than calm in the household.

But Chazelle never lets us look closely enough into how the family copes with the challenges of a high-profile career in space and the realities of childhood tragedy. Never does Chazelle simply let Armstrong and his wife Janet complete a conversation so we better understand how they react to pressure, how they handle devastation. Instead the director chooses to jump from sequence to sequence without letting any sequence simply settle.

Perhaps Chazelle was haunted by the memories of Apollo 13, the ultimate movie about an astronaut’s journey. Maybe that’s why he seems to go out of his way to avoid the visuals we expect in a movie about space. Or the heroism. Or the patriotism. Or perhaps, because he is directing a film in a natural way for the first time, as opposed to the stylized approach to Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle simply feels uncomfortable letting a story simply unfold. Naturally.

Sadly, the film disappoints, because we don’t get to the know the people that matter.

First Man is rated PG-13 for “some thematic content involving peril, and brief strong language.” The film runs 2 hours, 21 minutes. Following its theatrical run it is available on iTunes and on demand.

Apollo 13: The Ultimate Space Movie

How we innovate can enable us to dream.

While First Man details the culmination of many dreams of space travel, Ron Howard’s classic Apollo 13 offers the ultimate look at what people try to conquer in places we don’t fully understand. Any why, as we dream, we must be able to innovate so we can quickly address whatever challenges may occur.

Few experiences in the American landscape are as rooted in our national dreams as the race to space in the 1950s and 1960s. During those years, when discussion was dominated by the Cold War, succeeding in space became an obsession for a country that could not handle second place. And so, in the late 1950s, when the Russians outdid our initial efforts to launch space travel, America went into overdrive, culminating with President Kennedy’s declaration, in 1961, that we would put a man on the moon within the decade. And so, in 1969, when the crew of the Apollo 11 spacecraft successfully landed on the moon, and returned safely to earth, the nation rejoiced.

Find Apollo 13 on TV this weekend.
Find Apollo 13 on TV this weekend.

Within just a year, however, the notion of space travel and moon landings had become passé in the country and, by the time the Apollo 13 crew took off for the moon in 1970 — for what should have been the third lunar-landing flight, most people considered such a voyage routine. But, as the nation soon learned, there is no routine in space. And when an explosion on board the spaceship potentially dooms the crew — and initiates a harrowing effort to safely return them — the nation anxiously watches every human effort to bring them home.

Apollo 13 recreates this important moment in US history in great detail, from the excitement over the launch to the anxiety over the challenges faced, to the nail-biting moments as the crew attempts to return. You will feel you are there in outer space as the astronauts try every possible way to secure a safe trip home supported by their colleagues on the ground. And you will deeply feel the pain in the words, “Houston, we have a problem.”

The film emphasizes the importance of innovation to any advancement in a national or scientific agenda. By keeping the big picture small, director Ron Howard focuses our attention on the simple ways people work to solve a large problem. And, as tense as the situation became, Howard never goes for the cheap dramatics. This is a tribute to how people think, not an invitation to experience excessive emotion. He lives a primary rule in cinema based on a real-life incident, to always remember less is more.

Apollo 13 carefully balances its focus on technology and humanity. The astronauts emerge as real people, frightened and focused, who simply want to come home. And their family members and colleagues, as well, become real people who anxiously await the outcome. The film will teach you the potential and limits of technology as well as remind you of the unlimited potential of human ingenuity when times are tough.

Apollo 13 is Rated PG for “language and emotional intensity.” The film runs 2 hours, 20 minutes, and is available to stream online.

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