First Man focuses less on the “giant leap” that mankind took with Apollo 10, and more on the smaller steps that the audience could relate to. My friend and I took in the sound of metal plates straining and rivets wanting to pop, the dizzy, sick-to-the-stomach that happens when the visual field spins and the ear-splitting noise of a violent ignition. It is interesting to compare the scene in First Man where his wife forces Gosling’s Armstrong to say the good bye to his children with how Tom Hanks as Lovell manages the task in Apollo 13. Both portrayals show the men’s calm focus on facts to answer questions, but Armstrong seems remote, it’s hard to know and empathize with someone so laconic.
With today’s sensibilities, it’s hard not to fault the Armstrong character for the way in which he appeared to sidestep emotion. The movie is set in the sixties and though it’s easy to think of “the sixties” as Vietnam and the hippies, the actual forces behind the space program had been set in place the previous decade by leaders from the WWII era. Time travel, like geographic travel, puts us in foreign cultures, Armstrong’s sons, who were actually involved in the film as technical consultants, do not fault their father.