NASA did not talk much about the day it almost killed Neil Armstrong, and that was smart. It was just over a year before Armstrong became the first man on the moon, commanded by Apollo 11, and although he had not yet been officially chosen for the concert, he was on the short list and everyone knew it. Worse yet, NASA already had fresh blood on its hands, after the fire on the Apollo 1 spacecraft that killed three astronauts the year before.
So things stayed relatively quiet on May 1968, when Armstrong was flying on a training mission on the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), a four-legged machine the size of a small truck meant to simulate the real lunar module. and only 200 feet above the ground, it began to spin out of control. Armstrong struggled to stabilize him, had no luck and two seconds before the LLRV crashed, ejected him, flew him and parachuted down, passing directly through the plume of black smoke that produced the landing vehicle when it crashed into the thicket from Texas.
As other Apollo astronauts remember, Armstrong returned to his desk at the time, working wordlessly on the accident report. As the scene is shown in an exciting way in the new biopic of Armstrong First man-Based on the book by James R. Hansen and directed by Damien Chazelle with his The earth star as Ryan Gosling as Armstrong; He first made a brief stop at his house, where he cleaned and swallowed iced tea before running away. Both versions capture man.
"Neil did not stop," says Chazelle, accompanied by Gosling for lunch at a Los Angeles café. "He collides with the thing and his face is bloody, he talks to the other boys, and then he walks and they try to stop him and they can not." I was doing this hasty race towards the moon. "
Armstrong did not hurry alone. He was the key man for the 400,000 people who worked on the great lunar impulse of the 1960s and who were, themselves, the vanguard of a nation of 200 million who had accepted President Kennedy's challenge in 1962 to have Americans in the United States. moon next to the end of the decade. The country faced the challenge, staying with the landing on July 20, 1969.
It's been 50 years since Armstrong flew, and a movie about a figure like him and an achievement like Apollo 11 comes at a strange and instructive time. It is a time of divided screens and acclaimed opinions, of online exhibitionism and self-celebration. The office occupied by Kennedy, who threw the lunar glove, is now occupied by President Trump, whose shots are more personal. The anonymous engineers who built the Saturn V rocket were replaced by the impulsive Elon Musk, who makes cars and rockets, and also all kinds of messes with their tweets and outbursts that are par excellence in 2018.
None of that was Armstrong. It was one of the malicious tricks of the story that for millennia, humanity had an opening job that dreamed of filling "the first man on the moon", who asked for a person who would feel comfortable living in the burning light of fame that He would be trained in him for the rest of his life. Instead, what he received was a man who was less glorious than the nocturnal phlox, a flower that closes in the sunlight and opens at night.
That was part of the challenge that Chazelle faced: making a compelling film about a man who was taciturn, remote, more inclined to deflect praise than to accept them. In an earlier era, Gary Cooper would have played the role; In this era, Gosling got the nod, and he knew it would not be easy.
"Neil was a very, very layered person," he says. "Extremely humble, extremely knowledgeable. He had a great depth of character, although those things are not easy to outsource. " Gosling is exteriorized, with a wonderfully tense minimalism. "It helped us a lot that we have Ryan," says screenwriter Josh Singer. "Ryan can live in the small."
Part of Armstrong's temperamental austerity was born of deep pain. (Several spoilers follow). It was the grief of one of his first and closest astronaut friends, Elliot See, who died when his T-38 jet crashed. It was the pain and horror of the Apollo 1 fire that killed the astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee in January 1967. And it was the pain, more terrible, than Armstrong and his wife Jan (played by Claire Foy) They endured when Her 2-year-old daughter, Karen, died of brain cancer. That happened before Armstrong even joined the space program, but it may have been one of the things that pushed him there.
"It's the kind of loss that can lead you through the cosmos," says Chazelle.
Armstrong covered that cosmic distance. He made the great journey and took the big steps. The triumph of Chazelle's film is that he not only tells us the story of that mission, which we know very well, but the story of a man we barely know.
First manLike other previous space films, it is full of magnificent machines. The recreation of the two-man Gemini spacecraft, which has never before made a notable appearance in a major movie before, is true to the last switch and warning light. The Saturn V rocket, which we have seen on the screen before, has never looked so real or so glamorous.
"They had a Saturn V model 20 feet tall that was absolutely fantastic. I tried to steal the damn thing, "jokes Al Worden, lunar astronaut of Apollo 15, who worked as a consultant on the set.
But First man He wants us to also fear machines. The film begins with a flight of terror exhibition that Armstrong took in an X-15 rocket plane in 1961. It is filmed brutally, claustrophobically, with the spectator trapped inside the small cabin while the plane trembles wildly and the engine roars deaf. Armstrong flies more than 20 miles into the stratosphere and suddenly realizes he can not go back down, when the plane begins to "fly in a balloon" or bounce off the top of the atmosphere. It is an early lesson about the salary of arrogance and what is at stake in the movie: you can leave Earth, but do not be so sure that you will be allowed to return. Chazelle says that we feel both fear and violence.
"I hope the scene becomes a Universal ride at some point," says Gosling. "I do not remember much of the footage, I remember Damien shouting:" More tremors! More tremor! & # 39;
Something similar happens with the scene of Armstrong's Gemini 8 mission, during which a stuck propeller led to a high-speed turnaround that required an emergency abortion. And it happens again before the terror of the fire of Apollo 1, that Chazelle shot intelligently almost in real time, with barely 20 seconds from the moment of the first spark until the death of the crew. It was through these small temporal divisions that the space heroes could go from the cabin to the coffin.
"So that three of the best and the brightest are extinguished in that lapse of time," says Chazelle. "For me, the important thing was to emphasize speed."
If Armstrong trusted that he could handle the temperamental machines, what caused him the most trouble were the humans who, inconveniently, populate the world along with the hardware. After the funeral of his friend See, he remains alone for so long at the neighborhood meeting in one of the astronaut's houses before escaping to the tranquility of his own backyard, where he watches the stars. His friend White, whom we still do not know as a member of the living dead, follows him and tries to convince him to re-enter.
"Do you think I'm standing here in the backyard because I want to talk to someone, Ed?" Says Armstrong.
It corresponded to Jan Armstrong in real life, and to Foy in the film, serving as a kind of land bridge between the larger world of friends and family, and the island nation that was Armstrong. The night before leaving home in Houston to fly to Cape Canaveral and from there to the moon, he himself takes care of packing, packing too much and too slowly, because while he is involved in this worldly business, he has the opportunity to wait for his children , Rick, 12 and Mark, 6, hoping they will go to bed and he can avoid what might be his last goodbye. Foy, like Jan, does not have any of that.
"Now you will sit them both, and you will prepare them for the fact that you may never come home," he demands. "You're doing that, you, I'm not, I'm done."
And so he does, in his own way. Gather the family around the dining table and, in a scene constructed with less speech than silence, does everything possible to be open with their children.
"Do you think you're going back?" Rick asks.
"We have real confidence in the mission," Armstrong replies. "There are risks, but we intend to return." Mark hugs his father, but Rick simply shakes his hand.
"I remember the meeting," says Mark today, "because we rarely meet in the dining room. I left the meeting with great confidence that Dad was going to another mission and I would see him on the other side. "If Armstrong's famous reserve is hereditary, it captures Mark's use of such a clinical word. meeting.
Neil Armstrong He may have measured his warmth and humanity in coffee spoons, but he had his moments and the film shows them. There is a sweet play scene with the children, with Armstrong chasing them around the house, picking up one and triumphantly announcing to Jan, "I have one!" As if he were catching puppies. There's the deadlock he handles in a single line that leads to his Apollo 11 crewmate, Buzz Aldrin, whose forcefulness was the temperamental opposite of Armstrong's studied calm.
I observed both sides of Armstrong closely and during a 12-day moral tour of military bases in the Middle East in 2010 that featured Armstrong; Jim Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13; and Gene Cernan, the Apollo 17 commander. There were dozens of people in our tour group, and Armstrong was talking when he had to, reading when he was allowed and especially enlightened when he was on stage, addressing military men and women. Service young enough to be their children or even their grandchildren, or in the back of the bus with Lovell and Cernan, sharing stories and laughing at inner jokes so deeply that only the 21 people who flew to the moon would catch them.
Yes First man It is a film that we can appreciate in our current point of reference in history, it is not entirely clear that it is a film that we deserve. The America that sent nine astronaut crews to the Moon was a political divide, just like the current America. But the battles that were fought had to do with deep issues: the Vietnam War, civil rights.
Many of the battles we fought in 2018 are far less important. In effect, one caught First man itself. The part of the film that takes place on the lunar surface is true to the real landing, in the rhythm, in the language, in the movements of Armstrong when he took the steps of the time. He is also faithful in a private moment that happened, a few dozen meters away, in a formation called Little West Crater. What happens there is a note of grace perhaps invented, perhaps authentic for the character of Armstrong. (According to Hansen, the Armstrong family believes that something very similar to what we see on the screen may have happened). Either way, the scene brings us back to the heart and the anguish that was Armstrong.
But as soon as the first projections were made, a storm of outrage broke out over the fact that the lunar flag scene was not included. That First man He is practically a lover of America, who is quite adorned with flags in all other scenes, it does not seem to matter.
The Apollo program itself did not escape the politics of its time. First man Includes a montage of peace rallies and civil rights of the time that pointed directly to NASA. The scene is set in the 1970 recording of "Whitey on the Moon" by African-American jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron:
I can not pay any doctor's bill
(But Whitey is on the moon)
In ten years I will be paying
(While Whitey is on the moon)
It was all the money I won last year.
(For Whitey on the moon?)
How come there is no money here?
(Hm! Whitey is on the moon)
The Scott-Heron questions are timely and remain relevant. A nation makes decisions about how to spend its money, and while the United States still has a space program, it still has many people who can not afford to pay their medical bills.
But budget decisions also frame more abstract questions, which involve who, as a nation, we want to be; where, as a nation, we want to plant our literal or metaphorical flag. We chose, in the 1960s, to plant it on the moon, and we continue to sow it in space today, led by explorers who are no longer all white, all men. First Man firmly defends why that may be the right choice, and why Armstrong, a man who suffered for a long time, was the right person to guide us.
This appears in the October 22, 2018 edition of TIME.