Proud, Happy, Thrilled: First Man

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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

An action film might not be an obvious choice for the director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 2014; La La Land, 2016), but this does not mean that First Man fails in this category. According to Josh Singer, the writer of the film who is also responsible for the likes of Spotlight (dir. Tom McCarthy, 2015) and The Post (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2017), Chazelle was pretty clear about his vision. He wanted the viewer to be “terrified the entire time”.[1]  The confirmation of achieving this goal comes as early as the opening scene which, I imagine, most will have been watching biting their nails and gripping to their seat. In fact, The Verge went as far as to call First Man “the most intense space movie of all times.”[2]

Chazelle’s newest film, however, refuses to conform to the traditional narrative of brave American heroes selflessly sacrificing their lives for their country’s benefit and heroically fighting (and, more importantly, winning) the space race against the Soviets. This rejection of the genre’s conventions materialises itself in the form of the American flag placed on the Moon – or rather lack thereof. This simple aesthetic choice caused an outburst of anger among some, including Donald Trump. The US President felt so strongly about the detail that he announced he would not be watching the film. As he disclosed in a recent interview, “it's almost like they're embarrassed at the achievement coming from America.”[3] Ryan Gosling, who plays Neil Armstrong, explained how the decision also reflects the view of landing on the Moon being an achievement of the whole humanity rather than Americans but it was not enough to calm down the controversy.[4]

There is no denying that First Man deserves to be called an action film, with or without the iconic American flag on the Moon, but it is much more than that. It is, in fact, a story about toxic masculinity and the extent of emotional burden carried by the wives of astronauts who took part in the space race.

Right from the very beginning we are entangled in the dramatic private life of Janet (Claire Foy) and Neil Armstrong’s; as we see their two-year-old daughter Karen die, we start noticing how with each passing year the main protagonist becomes more distant and colder, especially to his own family. It is clear that the tragedy pushed Armstrong to join the space programme but his quick return to work was not what Janet needed and expected from him at the time. This inability to speak to anyone about Karen, give himself proper time to mourn and recognise his wife’s emotional needs are just a few examples of toxic masculinity leaving its mark on the astronaut. The most harrowing of all is the scene preceding Armstrong’s mission to the Moon. When it is clear Neil has no intention of saying goodbye to his children, let alone speak to them about the possibility of never retuning home, Janet refuses to let that happen. Even though the difficult conversation does take place, it is extremely forced, unemotional and filled with big, scientific words – almost as if instead of speaking to his sons he was giving an official interview about the possible outcomes of the mission.

“You’re doing that, not me,” said Janet to Neil switching the repetitive pattern of women being the only ones responsible for emotional wellbeing of their families. Often left in the dark about the missions’ progress, as seen in First Man in the case of Gemini 8, astronauts’ wives were forced to live up to the fantasy of ideal housewives, supporting their husbands every step of the way and protecting their careers by “sweeping domestic strife under the carpet and putting on shows of marital harmony”.[5] Achieving the impossible standard of perfect mothers and loving wives to their ideal husbands was crucial to maintaining the myth of patriotic American heroes, so superior, both intellectually and morally, to their Soviet counterparts. However, often this image of pure and noble astronauts was simply not true, as fame and international recognition brought with itself affairs, alcoholism and, as in the case of Armstrong, “emotional unavailability”. Out of 30 men recruited into the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes, marriages of as many as 23 did not survive.[6] 

“If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home,” said Barbara Cernan, the first wife of Eugene Cernan, the last person to ever walk the moon.[7] Preserving the illusion of perfect happiness whilst coping with reoccurring possibilities of seeing their husbands for the last time or attending yet another astronaut’s funeral was emotionally exhausting for the women and usually overseen by the public as well as their own husbands. 

“Proud, Happy, Thrilled” – read the motto of the Astronaut Wives Club formed by them in the 1960s, which inspired Lily Koppel’s book The Astronaut Wives Club and the ABC show by the same title. The draining demand to be exactly that – proud, happy and thrilled about their husbands being sent out on extremely dangerous space missions – is demonstrated in Chazelle’s Pat White’s (Olivia Hamilton) words to Janet: “it [coming back from space] must be disorienting for them.” There is no denying that but what about their families? Was it not disorienting for them, too?

Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon but we cannot forget that Janet Armstrong was one of countless women left to pick up the pieces. Ed White, Armstrong himself and many others sacrificed their lives for science but so did their wives. It was a different type of sacrifice but a sacrifice nonetheless.

Alicja Tokarska
Freelance writer and translator
October 2018

[1]Shanahan, Mark. ‘Screenwriter’s new mission? Spotlight Neil Armstrong in an action movie’, The Boston Globe, 2018. [accessed 7th October 2018]

[2] Bishop, Bryan. ‘First Man is one of the most intense space movies of all time’, The Verge, 2018.  [accessed 7th October 2018]

[3]Coglianese, Vince and Enjeti, Saagar. ‘Full Transcript of Trump’s Oval Office Interview with the Daily Caller’, The Daily Caller, 2018. [accessed 7th October 2018]

[4] O’Connor, Roisin. ‘First Man star responds to patriotism row sparked by false flag report’, The Independent, 2018. [accessed 7th October 2018]

[5] Goddard, Jacqui. ‘Drink, debauchery and despair: astronauts’ wives lift lid on grim reality behind the smiling Nasa space launches’, The Telegraph, 2013. [accessed 7th October 2018]

[6] Goddard, Jacqui

[7] O’Hagan, Sean. ‘The last man on the moon on crash-landings, losing his wife and watching an ‘Earth-rise’’, The Guardian, 2016. [accessed 7th October 2018]

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