One Small Step…

Exploring Profound Loss in First Man

First Man (2018) | Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

In July of 2019, I packed a tote bag with bottles of ice water, sprayed my body with “deep woods” mosquito repellent, and joined the flood of people emptying out of metro stations and onto the National Mall in D.C. The crowd gathered at sunset to watch footage of the Apollo 11 mission projected on the Washington Monument, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. After standing in a twisting line at an ice cream cart, and triumphantly returning to my family at our claimed patch of grass with already-melting treats, I settled into our spot and waited for the show to begin. Bombastic music swelled throughout the heavily-edited sequence, interfering with JFK’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech, crescendo-ing as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon’s surface. The soaring violins and the frantic edits seemed unnecessary and intrusive, part of a narrative thrust upon the audience in service of a well-defined, simplified story of heroism. While legends like these serve their purposes, they aren’t authentic to human experiences—the complications, the pain. The legend tells the story of a man in control as he journeys to the Moon. The legend focuses on the giant leap for mankind. But it ignores the true story of profound loss. 

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Damien Chazelle’s First Man is more concerned with Armstong’s small step than that giant leap. The film follows Neil Armstrong’s path from test flights to the Moon landing—a storytelling conundrum challenged by the question of how to tell a story that we think we know, one that’s woven into the fabric of American identity. The film begins as Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) pilots an X-15 rocket plane in what would become the longest flight in the aircraft’s entire test program. The camera focuses, intimately, on the violence unfolding in the X-15’s cockpit and on Armstrong himself, framing the controlled chaos through intense shaking. Armstrong’s breathing intensifies, coupled with the sound of metal on the edge of breaking apart. The aircraft thrusts upwards, into the sudden, eerie silence of zero gravity. He hovers above Earth, cleaved from all of humanity as the X-15 then skips off our atmosphere when he attempts his descent. He is in danger of drifting off into space, of being lost forever. 

Although he manages to regain control and return to Earth, the harrowing sequence leads directly into a scene more terrifying than the last—in which Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), watch as their young daughter is treated with radiation for a brain tumor. The mayhem of the X-15 scene is counterbalanced with the quiet panic gripping the parents of a seriously ill child, and then the helplessness of a father soothing his 2-year-old as she vomits. The tethering of these events emphasize the trajectories First Man seeks to explore: a daunting path to the Moon, and a grueling journey into the realm of unimaginable loss. 

First Man (2018) | Universal Pictures

While many details in First Man are painstakingly recreated to historical accuracy, Chazelle shifts the timeline of these opening scenes. Armstrong’s daughter, Karen (nicknamed “Muffie”), passed away on Neil and Janet’s sixth wedding anniversary. The X-15 “ballooning” incident occurred later, after Karen’s death. The choice to pair these scenes underscores Chazelle’s focus on the internal life of an almost mythic hero. We see Armstrong researching his daughter’s illness: inquiring about treatment in Canada, cataloging Karen’s radiation sessions. He is an engineer looking for a solution in every situation, to make sense of the senseless. 

When my partner was diagnosed with cancer, I tried to make sense of it too. I read through pamphlets I picked up at the hospital and Googled every reputable source I could find on his particular type of blood cancer. I whipped out a notepad and pen each time we met with his oncologist, questions at the ready. I wondered how an otherwise healthy man in his 30s could end up with tumors blooming throughout his torso, undetected for who knows how long. A voice in my head reminded me, again and again, that I had not attended medical school and I had no experience in this field of research, but I continued searching for answers. The feeling of not being in control is one of untethering, not just from a crisis of condition but from the most fundamental idea we have of ourselves and how we fit into the world. Well-meaning friends offered advice, suggestions grasping at control in the face of mortality. Take turmeric! Have you tried meditating? I was tempted to tell them that some cancers occur for no discernible reason—not diet, genetics, or other identifiable factors—but the truth felt too cruel to say aloud.

Instead, I internalized my frustrations and fears. Maybe I recognize this in Armstrong. He wasn’t outwardly emotional; he kept his cool—a key reason why he was an ideal astronaut. But I also recognize that, for a filmmaker, it’s a challenge to connect an audience with a figure who held his emotions close to his chest. Chazelle seeks to overcome this barrier through intimacy from the very beginning. Whereas Philip Kaufman’s modern classic The Right Stuff opens with a montage and narration that places us in the historical context of early test flights, First Man drops us straight into up-close storytelling. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is almost claustrophobic, leaning into a hand-held documentary-style on 16mm film, slipping in and out of Armstrong’s point of view. It’s camerawork that borrows from cinéma verité to interrogate an emotional state, eschew spectacle, and challenge our expectations of how one grieves. 

First Man (2018) | Universal Pictures

After Karen dies, Armstrong throws himself into work and avoids talking about his daughter. His workmates are surprised to see him back at work, and later in the film we see Janet asking friends if Neil ever mentions Karen. She reveals that Neil doesn’t talk about Karen even to her. His behavior may come off as cold, but his compartmentalization is not a unique reaction to trauma and grief. Armstrong’s processing of grief (or, his resistance to it) seems an extension of his personality and is, perhaps, a reflection of expectations during a specific time period within a largely masculine environment. I’m reminded of my grandfather’s reluctance to recount his experiences as a soldier during World War II. His silence didn’t make the pain less real. And although I had a long period to prepare for my grandfather’s passing, after a major stroke triggered a slow decline over the following decade, I still wasn’t ready to process his loss. I just didn’t talk about it. To talk about it would be to expose unhealed wounds. When it comes to the enormity of loss and how we live inside it, there is no playbook. 

When my partner was diagnosed, I dreaded painful conversations, inquiries about the details of his illness, so I reacted by generally avoiding people altogether—hanging in the background at school pick-ups to side-step concerned parents and pitying glances. When one parent responded to the news by tearfully breaking down, as though the diagnosis was surely a death sentence, I was overcome with anger, though I didn’t express that emotion outwardly either. We might not see the obvious effects of trauma, but our repressed reactions don’t equate the absence of impact. Armstrong acknowledges as much when, during an interview to join the space program, he is asked if Karen’s death could affect his work, to which he answers: “I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.” 

That effect manifests in Neil’s emotional withdrawal. He retreats even as he forges ahead in his mission, and we are confronted with the toll this takes on Janet. First Man‘s title might point directly to Neil, but the film is more concerned with the shared anguish of pursuing that title, and in doing so it emphasizes Janet’s heroism. She endures constant stress, while performing the duties expected of an “astronaut’s wife,” as she moves through the vast, desolate landscape of loss.

Like the astronauts, Janet must tamp down worries and put on a brave face, but she also says what needs to be said. When a thruster malfunction sends Gemini 8 into a life-threatening roll after successfully docking with Agena, NASA shuts down the “squawk box” that allows Janet to hear what’s happening. It’s a misguided attempt to soften danger and control the narrative, and Janet is having none of it. She confronts NASA director of flight crew operations, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), at Mission Control, her words resonating like a Greek chorus: “All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control…but you’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control.” Janet’s voice is a desperately required dose of reality, a voice shaped by her experience and her willingness to challenge cocksure declarations. She has lived through Neil’s multiple near-fatal incidents. She has attended funerals and watched widowed wives float in a fog of despair. She has suffered through every parent’s greatest fear. She knows better than most of us, and she’s not afraid to puncture the illusions NASA, and her husband, cling to. 

I could’ve used some of Janet’s candor when I was in a tailspin, but it’s difficult to let anything in when you’ve built up a wall. It’s not easy to break through and acknowledge some things are beyond our control. To do so is to affirm mortality in the starkest of situations. And to move past that affirmation is to move closer to something like acceptance. There are moments where we see Neil moving closer to that place, when cracks appear in Neil’s façade. In one scene, he notices a child’s swing and Karen’s name slips through his lips—a seemingly small step, but large within the panorama encompassing loss. Perhaps Neil also struggles to move forward because the specter of death is a constant presence in his line of work; death claims the pilots and astronauts Armstrong has come to know, among them his friend Elliot See. In the scene where Neil learns of the Apollo 1 fire, we see his efforts to maintain some sense of control shatter when confronted by death, like the glass that shatters in his hand.

William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As viewers, we follow the narrative strand that traces Neil’s trajectory, but the less-linear narrative strand of loss bubbles up as though it is always simmering underneath. Karen briefly appears at a funeral like a ghost; memories return like portions of old family films spliced into a story otherwise moving forward in time. Music marks a return to the past when Armstrong reminisces and dances with Janet. The oddly moving sounds of the Theremin weave and wail in and out of the film like pangs of sorrow. The pain of loss will always find its way in.

Before Neil leaves home for the Apollo 11 mission, Janet demands that he face his young boys, to answer their questions, to say goodbye. He has done his best to avoid the stark reality that he may, in fact, soon die. It’s an uncomfortable scene. Keenly aware of the dangers ahead, what can a parent say when their child asks if they will ever see them again. I fretted about finding “the right time” to tell our kids about their father’s cancer diagnosis, feared I would say the wrong thing. But there is no right time and there are no right words. We fumble through life as best we can. We are imperfect human beings, and the path we follow is rockier than the surface of the moon.

First Man (2018) | Universal Pictures

The magnitude of that human perspective comes into full focus when Apollo 11 finally lands and the hatch opens to a jagged alien landscape. The view shifts to a stunning IMAX reveal, and from music to silence—we are left with only ourselves, our humanity, whether stumbling in the grandeur of a gray world or in the small spaces we inhabit on Earth. Grainy footage is blended with first person POV, balancing a grand, history-making event with the weight of interiority. Rather than an extended focus on cataloguing those familiar moments, Chazelle turns to a quiet moment in which Armstrong stands near a crater, opens his gloved hand, and releases Karen’s baby bracelet into an otherworldly darkness. The scene might be poetic conjecture gleaned from conversations with Armstrong’s friends and family and the unscheduled time he spent at Little West Crater before returning to the lunar module—but that doesn’t affect its feeling of authenticity. There’s a deeper emotional concern at the forefront here. We can’t know precisely what was in Neil’s mind during those few moments. There is, however, a connection to journalist Jay Barbree’s account of Armstrong noticing a “baby crater” on the moon, or what he thought of as “Muffie’s crater”—a peek into Armstrong’s mind and an aching that never dissolves. 

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In the years since my partner first received the cancer diagnosis, doctors have managed to shrink the tumors, but he is on long-term treatment to keep them from growing back. I still tense up when he receives the results of his twice-yearly scans, though I tend to bury the worry deep within me. Every test, scan, and blood draw is a treacherous excursion into uncharted space. The details may change, but the risks we take do not. We are always making things up as we go along. We focus on our achievements because it’s easier to tell stories with a clearly victorious end. But First Man doesn’t end on the moon or with the footage of a world enraptured by the moon landing. It ends with Armstrong in quarantine, separated from Janet through a pane of glass, the distance between them less clear, their grief unending. The narrative of the mission may have reached its end, but the pain and fear of loss is infinite.