Seeing God in the universe.
When Neil Armstrong was asked why America was putting such incredible resources into placing a man on the Moon, he tentatively responded:
“I think we’re going to the Moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges …We’re required to do these things just as salmon swim upstream.”
His answer perfectly captured the spirit of the endeavour. The Moon landing fired the imagination of those looking on, as it will again with the release of the film, First Man. But strangely, it failed to shape the man at its centre.
First Man is directed by Damien Chazelle, whose successes include Academy Award winners Whiplash and La La Land. It embraces formidable acting talent such as Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. Yet, most of all, it tells a story so epic, it has become part of human folklore. Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. The script draws its inspiration from the astronaut’s best-selling biography by James Hansen. It begins in 1961, during Armstrong’s test pilot days and follows his determination to fly faster, further and higher, from the cockpit to the capsule of the Apollo 11 Moon Mission. However, the film’s particular focus is the personal journey Armstrong’s family makes to reach that momentous day.
Chazelle told Deadline Hollywood his aim was, “…to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects between Armstrong and his wife Janet (Foy), who supports her husband, but keeps Neil’s feet firmly on the ground when it comes to his family:
“What are the chances of not coming back? Those kids, they don’t have a father anymore. So, you’re going to sit the boys down, and you’re going to prepare them for the fact that you might not ever come home.”
Despite this intimate viewpoint, First Man cannot avoid the enormous significance the mission held for the human family. Gosling describes the Moon landing as an event that, “…transcended countries and borders.” Hansen’s biography certainly captures the feeling that Armstrong was ascending into the heavens on behalf of all of us:
“Two thousand reporters watched the launch from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Eight hundred and twelve came from foreign countries, 111 from Japan alone. A dozen were from the Soviet bloc. Landing on the Moon was a shared global event that nearly all humankind felt transcended politics.”
Yet, in its attempt to demonstrate the way Apollo 11 united nations, First Man neglects a more personal divide for those involved, especially in the Armstrong household. Neil’s mother, Viola Armstrong, doesn’t feature in the film, but she saw her son’s achievements as a gift from a loving God:
“I survived this only by the grace of God. He must have been at my side constantly.”
And that perspective was represented in Apollo 11’s capsule as well. Hours before the landing, Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, reached into his Personal Preference Kit, and withdrew two small packages given to him by his Presbyterian minister: a vial of wine and a small wafer. As his craft rocketed towards the moon, and the world prayed for their safety, he gave thanks for the greater deliverance Jesus had already provided from his sins. However, this was not a perspective that Armstrong shared.
Let his “one small step” lead you one step closer to the God who placed the moon beneath his feet.
Hansen, the author of the only biography to be created with Armstrong’s direct assistance and consent, describes the legendary astronaut as a man who rejected any effort to connect his achievement with faith. Both Muslim and New Age believers attempted to recruit him to their cause, but Armstrong issued only strong denials. His mother hoped Neil would believe, “God is up there with all three of those boys,” but Hansen says this was just a case of Viola, “… projecting her religious beliefs onto her son as she always did.” As humble as Armstrong was, the best historical records present us with a man who saw no need to include God in his plans, or thank him for his achievements.
First Man is an awesome cinematic creation that will please many, but I can’t help but contemplate it with some sadness. The film ably brings out just how much scientists, engineers, administrators and astronauts had to overcome in order to achieve that, “… one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Yet it fails to convey the God who gifted their necessary abilities, nor the truly miraculous of America’s mission to the Moon.” Accordingly, much of the film centres on the relationship confluence of personalities, circumstances and events that delivered their success—and there is a simple, regrettable reason for that.
The Bible describes every man and woman’s natural state before God as being so completely infiltrated by sin that we are incapable of responding to, or even perceiving Him, without the intervention of his Spirit:
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world...” (Ephesians chapter 2, verses 1–2).
We are limited creatures who have forgotten the majesty of our creator. In the face of humanity taking its first step into the vast cosmos of wonder and possibility that he created, our souls are so calloused by rebellion that we see only our own abilities at work. This is a tragedy so profound, it easily eclipses the triumph of the Moon landing. Yet, there remains a greater gift within reach of our tiny hands. If we bring them together in prayer, we can ask that God will not only help us to see him at work in our lives, but Jesus as our saviour from a disaster more complete than any Apollo 11 faced.
First Man celebrates the life of a man who travelled into the heavens but may have missed heaven itself. No doubt, audiences will be stirred by Armstrong’s dedication to his family and his goal. But let his “one small step” lead you one step closer to the God who placed the moon beneath his feet.