Over the years I have made a number of posts here about the misrepresentation of the world of my childhood. Today's writers and producers have a lot of trouble grasping how different the 1950s-early 1960s were--how there were so many issues in life that people simply didn't talk about, and how generally accepted the norms of those era really were. I have noticed that the post, Truth, Fiction and Masters and Johnson draws a dozen or two hits almost every week. About a year ago I posted about The Shape of Water, which caricatured 1962 to a remarkable extent. This week I discovered not only another symptom of this disease, but an antidote. The subject was another iconic aspect of that era, the space program.
First Man, focusing on Neil Armstrong and starring Ryan Gosling, clearly had big aspirations for box office success and rewards, but sank like a stone. It closed before I could see it in theaters and I just watched it on DVD. It was the third major motion picture about the space program in the last 35-40 years. The first, The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's best-seller, came out in 1983, only 14 years after the Apollo moon landing, and dealt with the original Mercury program. Its writer/director, Philip Kaufman, came from the same generation as many of the astronauts. The second and by far the best was Apollo 13, the dramatic story of a nearly disastrous 1970 mission, appeared in 1995, and its director, Ron Howard, had seen the space program from the beginning as a small child and was already a national icon himself at the same time that the astronauts were. Now, a full 24 years later, comes First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle, who was born in 1985 and is therefore much too young to remember the Challenger disaster, much less any of the moon shots--or, more significantly, to have any real sense of what that era was like.
Chazelle's film focuses almost obsessively on Armstrong the man, and I must apologize for not having looked at the biography that he claims to have relied on, to see how it described his personality. Gosling's Armstrong appears to be--there is no other way to put it--clinically depressed. The film focuses on his loss of a baby daughter to cancer, and portrays a man who even by the standards of the 1950s-1960s is almost entirely without emotion, speaks as rarely and briefly as possible, and has a great deal of difficulty showing any emotional connection with anyone. The film showed him flying what I took to be an X-15 in the 1950s but spent no time explaining that Armstrong, unlike nearly all the other astronauts, was not a military man, but a civilian test pilot. I did, however, find a BBC interview on youtube which Armstrong did in 1970, if either Gosling or Chazelle saw it, they didn't allow it to influence them very much. Armstrong clearly is quiet and reserved, but he shows plenty of emotion, and he also shows a quick intelligence and a very observant, engaged mind, responding in detail and without hesitation to all his interviewers' questions, confident that he is part of a great enterprise which will continue, and expand, throughout the rest of his life--in ways that it did not.
The bigger historical problem with First Man, however, is that it extends the image of Armstrong the loner to the entire program and the environment of all the astronauts. They are portrayed, astonishingly to those of us who remember those times, as an isolated group who don't seem to enjoy much public support, who cope alone with terrible dangers, and who have to beg the public and the authorities to even keep their program going. The opposite was true. The whole program was a national drama from 1961, when Alan Shephard made the first suborbital flight, through the first Apollo landing in 1969, and most of the classroom instruction in the United States came to a halt whenever a launch took place during the day. I don't think Chazelle can imagine what a world with just 3 tv channels, all of whom would tune in to major events like NASA mentions, was like. There is nothing today--literally nothing--that commands the kind of attention that those launches did as it happens, not even, probably, the annual Super Bowl. Our media, like our politics, are now fragmented and tribal, and we don't experience things as a nation the way that we did then.
A central episode in the movie led me to the primary source I was looking for to put the film in perspective. That was the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, when the three astronauts who had bee assigned to the first Apollo launch--Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee--burned to death in their capsule after an electrical malfunction created a spark and set the oxygen atmosphere of the capsule on fire. The accident took place around dinner time, but I remember that I didn't hear about it, for some reason, and learned it when I saw the front page of the New York Times that was delivered to me dormitory room the next morning. It was a terrible shock because no astronaut had died before; despite some problems (including one that figures earlier in the film) the Mercury and Gemini programs had been completed without any catastrophes. But I found on youtube what I missed then: a CBS special report, hosted by Mike Wallace, that probably ran about 11:30 PM that night. It should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand what masculinity really meant 50 years ago. It was not toxic.
Wallace and the other correspondents--including both Walter Cronkite, whose involvement in the whole program was particularly intense, and Dan Rather, who reports from Washington--are obviously deeply affected by the tragedy, but they speak calmly, factually, and in full grammatical sentences. So does Gus Grissom, the oldest and most experienced of the three dead men, in a previously taped interview in which he is asked whether, preparing for his third trip into space, he fears that the "law of averages" might catch up to him. "There's always the possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, it can happen as well on the last one as on the first one," he says, but one can't do anything but prepare as well as possible. "You have to understand the feeling. .that a test pilot has," Ed White says, "that I look forward a great deal to a first flight, there's a great deal of pride involved in making a first flight." "Our business," said Roger Chaffee, "is to find our if this thing will work for us." Like the nation they represented, they had confidence, and like professionals who deal with life and death in any era, they accepted the risks they faced as part of their job. In another moving clip, White suggests that the example of the moon program will inspire young people to set, and achieve, difficult goals."I think if a civilization, if our country, becomes so obsessed with making our country easy to live in, and making our surroundings so comfortable, that we are in an ever-descending spiraling-in spiral right within ourselves, and if we don't look out and continue to expand ourselves and expand our horizons. . .we're not going to progress as a nation." The even keel with which he delivers those words makes it quite clear that he was not in any way posturing; he believed every word. In another clip, John Glenn, our first orbiter, had stated in response to a question that "we" fully expected to lose a man sooner or later.
I am often struck as I listen to NPR nowadays that broadcasts are based on emotions, that they are the basis of the "stories" the reporters chose to tell. The CBS broadcast reeks with tragedy, but it is secondary to the inexorable march of the facts, of what had happened, of how the men had died, and of what was known and not known about why the disaster had taken place. NASA, including its chief scientist Werner von Braun, spoke very frankly even that evening. Another astronaut, Walter Schirra, speculated that the mission would be delayed for only a few months. As it turned out, it took longer than that, but the program, of course, met John F. Kennedy's original goal of reaching the moon during the decade of the 1960s.
When the Apollo I disaster took place, the greater disaster that would destroy the ethos of that era--the Vietnam War--was already in full swing. Within just a few more years, our government and many of our other institutions would be presumed guilty by much of the citizenry whenever anything went wrong, and responsible authorities were learning to react defensively and to start spinning from the word go. In January 1967 that was not the case, and Walter Cronkite, in his last words on the program also emphasized, "this is a test program," that many test pilots had died in conventional aircraft, and that while this would delay the program to 1969 or 1970, it "shouldn't, in any way, damage our national resolve to press on with the program for which these men gave their lives."
That era will not come back in any of our lifetimes. It had taken a century, I now think, to create its ethos, and for half a century we have been tearing it down. We have made social progress in areas that that time had neglected--but politically, we have regressed in ways that Wallace, Cronkhite and the rest could never even have imagined. One cannot, I think, watch that CBS special--as I hope many readers will take a half an hour to do--without realizing that it embodied virtues that we lack, and that we can try at least to revive in our own environment and our own lives.