Every late ‘70s college kid had a story about the night of July 20, 1969. Most were like mine: Our parents woke us up, told us something momentous was happening, and carried us in front of the TV. We watched the miracle of men in bulky suits climbing down the nine steps from the lunar module and hopping along the surface of the moon until we fell back asleep.
One friend had a different story. She told me that after years of scrimping, her parents had finally saved enough to buy their first home. It was in a new Texas subdivision, and to save money her father decided they’d put in the lawn themselves. That night, after being allowed to marvel for a few minutes at the giant leap for mankind, her father took her outside, gave her a small gardening trowel, and told her that since she was up, she could help him plant St. Augustine grass plugs in the front yard. She begged to keep watching the miracle on the moon, but her father insisted.
She told me that as she knelt in the mud digging with her little shovel, she’d gaze up at the crescent moon and cry.
I never forgot that story, because it shows, in a small way, how our perceptions of earthly affairs are transformed when viewed through the prism of another world. That bright, new perspective was very powerful, and many of us remember it vividly. Many are also confused by what has happened since.
There was a lot of talk in the ‘60s about our destiny being among the stars, and that the moon missions were only the first of many great adventures soon to come. But in the years since, our manned space program has languished, never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit.
Incredibly, America can’t even transport its own astronauts to the International Space Station, relying instead, ironically enough, on confiscatory taxiing by our space archrival, the Russians. Which is a bit like a fleeing Bugs Bunny suddenly skidding to a stop and turning to ask a befuddled Elmer Fudd if Bugs could help him reload his shotgun.
What was it that gave us the guts in the protocomputer ‘60s to rocket to the moon with mechanical, manual winding watches strapped to our wrists? Finally, we have First Man, a great new movie that provides answers to that question.
The reason it’s the first Apollo 11 movie in 49 years is the same reason they’ve never needed a fundraiser for wayward astronauts: Perfect self-control at all times was in the astronaut job description, which doesn’t normally make for the most compelling movie characters. But, Ryan Gosling unforgettably portrays Neil Armstrong – the prototypical steely-eyed missile man – as a man in full, struggling to maintain his stability as he copes with the passing of his beloved two-year-old daughter, the fiery deaths in preflight testing of his friends on the Apollo 1 crew, and his doomed marriage, all while being stretched into impossible shapes by his otherworldly responsibilities at NASA.
And for us space nerds, it’s fantastic that Hollywood is finally using its latest special effects wizardry to create something that dazzles people over the age of twelve. The Gemini and Apollo mission scenes perfectly capture the rickety, almost Jules Verne-like, we’re-never-gonna-know-if it-flies-unless-we-light-the-candle-on-this-darn-thing nature of those spacecraft. The portrayal is so realistic that you can easily imagine yourself strapped in alongside our intrepid astronauts as they’re violently thrown around inside those tiny, creaking capsules.
But, the movie really rounds into its own when Neil Armstrong opens the hatch of the lunar module and stares down on the powdery brilliance of the moon’s surface. At that moment, he knows, along with every sentient being in the audience, that our future really is among the stars. It’s great to have that spirit of 1969 back again.
Once in a great while, and probably by mistake, Hollywood makes a terrific movie for intelligent adults. Please see First Man.