Boasting intense flight sequences, fantastic visions of space, and a sublime moon landing, the new film First Man is an awe-inspiring cinematic journey. But the film does not stop there. Moving beyond delighting the senses, it provides a nuanced portrait of space exploration, depicting its costs alongside its benefits. By following Neil Armstrong through the astronaut selection process, his training, and finally his successful Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the film offers insight into his motivation and the price he paid to be the first man on the moon. But the glory of space exploration does not come without its costs. In exploring the context of the Apollo 11 mission, First Man brings to light issues of family, race, politics, and money surrounding humanity’s lunar journey.
Armstrong, played expertly by Ryan Gosling, faces his own obstacles before becoming the first human to walk on the moon. Early in the film, his beloved baby daughter dies of pneumonia. In a desperate attempt to escape his grief, Armstrong returns to work the next day, only to be informed that a problematic flight depicted earlier in the film has gotten him “grounded.” Fed up, Armstrong decides to apply for NASA’s mission to the moon. Even after being selected to join NASA’s team, he must compete against the rest of the team to be chosen to join the great lunar mission.
Admirably, Armstrong never shows any sign of being motivated by his own vanity. He pours himself into his work without reservation. When he is chosen to lead the famed mission, he does not gloat. Yet the film’s portrayal is not overly sentimental. The long hours he spends poring over his work comes at the price of with his relationship with his family. While he is consumed day and night by his work, his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), toils to raise their two boys without him. The boys show their disappointment in his departure by lamenting that he will miss their swim meet.
In addition to the personal toll the mission had on the Armstrong family, the film is rife with the political and economic controversies surrounding the mission in late 1960’s America. We hear opinions from people on the street, politicians, and even see an interview with author Kurt Vonnegut, who denounced the mission as a waste of money. A short sequence depicts Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) singing “Whitey On the Moon,” decrying the cruelty of spending millions to send a white man to the moon while inequality and poverty still ran rampant in America’s cities. Even some privileged politicians in Washington D.C. express concerns over the lives and money spent on the project. When the mission’s director, Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), expresses concerns about the value of their project, Neil simply replies, “too late for that.” Was Apollo 11 an American government ego boost, ignoring the problems of the poor and suffering in order to flex its technological muscles on the world stage? Was it merely an elaborate attempt to prove supremacy over the Soviets?
But First Man does not forget the value of mission either, offering arguments for the inherent value in the Apollo 11 mission. According to NASA, an estimated 530 million people around the world tuned in to see the American astronauts on the moon. Never before had so many people tuned in at once. The film offers interview footage showing reactions to the moon landing around the world. Despite the mounting tensions of the space race, the world was united in its awe of the cosmos.
A clip of President Kennedy offers another answer to this question. Why go to the moon? he asks. “We choose to go to the moon … not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard.” Similarly, Armstrong himself famously called the lunar landing "a giant leap for mankind.” The mission pushed the boundaries of human knowledge and imagination, harnessing the perennial human urge to explore, to uncover what has been shrouded in mystery. The film offers both sides of the argument, showing how the great journey took off from and returned to a complicated and divided world.
For Christians, the Apollo 11 mission suggests a provocative question: Do the benefits of exploring the deep expanses of God’s creation justify the sacrifices we must make to exercise that privilege? Justifying the cost of space exploration in the face of poverty and strife on Earth may seem as though we are ignoring our Christian responsibilities. Yet investing in our God-given urge to explore his creation need not distract our attention from issues on earth. In fact, space exploration has led to a number of inventions which benefit life on earth. For starters, NASA innovation has helped develop CAT scan technology, water purification systems, artificial limbs, and portable laptop computers. Christians seeking to bring God’s goodness into the world should applaud these advancements.
Additionally, the gravity of these human feats pulls our minds to wonder at creation; to awe at its creator. As historian Stephen Snobelen has pointed out, even atheist physicists resort to religious language in admiring the cosmos. The sublime grandeur of God’s expansive universe fills its great spaces with resounding and undeniable beauty. As shown by the world’s interest in Apollo 11, few human acts are more effective at awakening admiration for this beauty than human exploration.
The biblical doctrine of Creation unifies a compassion for our planetary home (and its inhabitants) with a passion to explore creation’s vast expanse. Amidst the constant tensions of a globalized society, there has never been a greater need for Christians to model this biblical call.