Ryan Gosling plays the role of NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (Universal Pictures Photo)
Two big-name dramatic productions — “First Man” in theaters, and “The First” on Hulu — are putting the glorious past and potentially glorious future of space exploration on big and small screens.
But if you’re expecting the Ryan Gosling movie about Neil Armstrong, or the Sean Penn streaming-video series about the first mission to Mars, to tell a geeky off-world tale like “The Martian” … expect to be surprised.
Sure, there are plenty of edge-of-the-seat moments, especially in “First Man.” Neil Armstrong cheated death at least four times: during a harrowing X-15 test flight in 1962, his head-spinning Gemini 8 space mission in 1966, his ejection from a plunging lunar lander simulator known as the “Flying Bedstead” in 1968, and his last-minute moon landing in 1969.
All those moments get screen time in a movie that’s based on James R. Hansen’s authorized biography of Armstrong. So does the Apollo 1 fire of 1967, which dealt a heavy blow to the space program as well as to Armstrong. And the end of the movie delivers CGI-enhanced lunar vistas that are literally out of this world. Have no doubt: Space geeks will be over the moon.
But “First Man” packs its biggest emotional punch in the relationships between Armstrong and his family. Or should that be “families”? For Armstrong, whose emotional life often seemed an enigma, the connections to his NASA family were arguably as strong as the connections to his wife, his two sons and the infant daughter he lost to cancer.
The release of “First Man” is eerily timely in light of this week’s aborted launch of a Russian Soyuz craft to the International Space Station. The close call experienced by NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin echoed Armstrong’s close call — and the photos of those astronauts being hugged by their families afterward brought the same sense of catharsis that you get watching the most suspenseful moments of “First Man.”
In this regard, “The First” complements “First Man.” The Hulu series’ eight-episode first season, about a privately backed Mars mission in the 2030s, is totally fictional. But the story arc, focusing on the choices that a veteran space commander (played by Penn) has to make between his mission and his family, rings true to life.
“The First” focuses even more sharply than “First Man” on the big questions surrounding human spaceflight, and arguably surrounding all exploration: Why would anyone take on a risky voyage, knowing that a bad outcome will cripple the loved ones left behind? What kind of mindset does it take to make that choice? And when an explorer chooses the frontier over family, what does that do to the family?
In “The First,” Penn lets the emotions show in his portrayal of a Mars mission commander who has to deal with his wife’s suicide and his daughter’s troubles. But Gosling has the tougher mission in “First Man”: to portray Neil Armstrong’s outwardly, sometimes frustratingly dispassionate demeanor, while letting flashes of deep emotion break through in private moments.
Those moments were so private that not even Armstrong’s biographer could nail them down completely. Three of Gosling’s strongest scenes were crafted by screenwriter Josh Singer, based only on what James Hansen surmised about Armstrong while doing research for the book. (Spoiler alert: For the details, check out this Bustle interview with Singer.)
Even though “First Man” and “The First” are about missions to space, both the movie and the video series spend most of their time on earthly matters. “The First” barely gets its crew out of Earth orbit by the end of the first season’s final episode, and Armstrong doesn’t take his one small step onto the moon’s surface until the last 10 minutes of a 141-minute movie.
The dramatic structure of “First Man” explains why the filmmakers didn’t make a big deal out of Apollo 11’s flag-raising ceremony. After Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, the movie quickly moves through its denouement. The U.S. flag is visible in a panoramic CGI view of the lunar surface, but dwelling on the red, white and blue would have spoiled the bigger picture.
Why send people into space? That question has been asked ever since President John F. Kennedy’s famous “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech in 1962. The question will no doubt be asked again in the years ahead, as NASA and its partners ramp up a new lunar campaign. Back in 1962, Kennedy said nations take on challenges like going to the moon “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Back in 1969, Armstrong echoed Kennedy when he said, “We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”
Those answers may not be totally satisfying. Neither “First Man” nor “The First” provide answers that are any more definitive. But they do show dramatically why we keep struggling with the question, and that’s something that resonates long after the credits roll.
The Northwest Science Writers Association has organized a social event around a showing of “First Man” at the Pacific Science Center’s Boeing IMAX Theater in Seattle at 1 p.m. PT Oct. 20. Sign up for the showing, and then show up at the Culture Kitchen inside the Museum of Pop Culture at 4 p.m. for a discussion led by Geoff Nunn, adjunct curator for space history at the Museum of Flight. You’ll have to buy your movie ticket, but the after-party at the museum is free. Check out NSWA’s website for details. (And if you’re a science writer, consider becoming a member.)