I suppose the review to follow isn’t all too apropos of Libertarianism, so to start I’ll mention two ways in which it relates.
First, of all the bad things The Empire has done, Neil Armstrong’s footprint on The Moon represents probably the best thing it has done. Make no mistake, the effort was almost certainly a waste of money, and an incredibly unnecessary art project given the ultimate outcome. Regardless, the achievement transcends the cost-equivalent lost opportunity of funding welfare XX% over XX years. That’s not to say the wealth wasn’t wasted at the expense of poor and rich alike, it’s to say that with respect to Warfare and Welfare, getting a living man’s boot onto the moon and getting him back is a relatively important thing. Thus, the moon landing is a discomforting foil to the rest of Empire. If we mark the American Empire as the “best” one of the “Big Five” that fought WWII, then the qualities which helped it win – economic strength, liberalism, the moral character of its people – would find their expression somewhere as Empire erodes and destroys those qualities.
Like Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, the American soul reaches to touch the hand of God, and nearly succeeds, the infinitesimal space left between them an infinite gulf. Sin, being that infinite gulf, is represented in the flag which waves over the achievement on the moon, a flag which also waved over countless dead in places like Vietnam. Neil Armstrong flew in Korea, a war which saw most of the habitable areas of North Korea completely flattened by bombs.
Second, First Man shows us why Armstrong was heroic. In certain ways, he almost fits the bill as one of those “cartoonish” Ayn Randian heroes. The movie portrays an unapologetic, an somewhat uniquely American, masculine heroism. It’s a portrayal that clashes with current American popular culture, and that makes it noteworthy. It makes one realize what sort of people exist at the forefront of human achievement, and brings up an uncomfortable truth. Freedom is uncomfortable, which is why many people don’t actually like it that much. A somewhat less essential point in the grand scheme of activism, but one that stands out given the identity politics of the contemporary left.
In any event, the movie in its nuts and bolts:
It’s a fantastic movie. It’s slow, and even though I’m a fan and ultimately apologist for it, there were about 15 minutes there (out of 2 and 1/2 hours) where I was twiddling my thumbs. There’s not a terrible lot that happens, in between some relatively short-lived action sequences. The space action itself is thrilling, but claustrophobic and highly point-of-view. It’s really not about the visual splendor, despite it being visually awesome at times.
This is a movie about Neil Armstrong, and what it was like to be him as he became the first man on the moon. The director distilled down Armstrong’s life, giving it an arc worthy of its historical significance.
What would make a man worthy to be the first to set foot on another world? What did he have that others didn’t, and why?
The question is answered in a slow but straightforward burn. The emotional cues are not at all subtle, nor are they very dramatic. Instead, each event builds upon the last, building a clear momentum which carries the magnificent last 20 minutes of the film.
As an aside, I have to mention that this is the best space film I’ve ever seen. I was a big space geek as a kid and “get” all the rocket stuff. In the Air Force, I went through some of the cockpits, checklists, parachutes, emergency procedures, and trying-to-be-coherent-and-not-hurl during a tailspin stuff. I’ve never flown in a fighter plane, but I’ve pulled G’s and piloted a barrel roll. I could really relate to this movie.
I’ve flown at 25,000 ft. I suppose I could imagine what it would be like to have to do it at 155,000 ft. Here’s what I imagine about it: it would be hard as hell – and I have a first hand appreciation for the reality of that.
The launch sequences in this film might be a little exaggerated. I don’t know if all the shaking and creaking noises you hear would get through your earplugs, headphones, and helmet. But then again, the intense physical discomfort, the g-forces, the spinning and shaking – the audience is spared all that. Some disconcerting sound effects don’t capture half of it.
In any event, if you want the closest thing I can imagine to experiencing a real rocket launch and white-knuckles 1960s cowboy space mission, as if you were there, in the capsule, go see this movie.
The big scene, you know, the moon landing, is the best of them all. Apparently some people didn’t know that Armstrong made it to The Moon, and were disappointed when this fact was “spoiled” to them. Well, he makes it. Since you had to have known that, then I’ll say that it’s not a spoiler to tell you that this film does the best possible job of making you really feel for a minute like they just might not.
It ain’t Star Wars, neither. The moon scene feels as real and tangible as does the scene where Neil escapes a crashing, exploding vehicle in the East Texas plains.
The movie is a bit light on heavy orchestration. However, the “big ending” pulls out all the stops on the music in just the right places. It’s a winner in editing and direction.
The purpose of the big ending – beyond the obvious (which the movie is extremely subtle about, treating us like adults and assuming we all already get the significance of going to the moon) – is to conclude Neil Armstrong’s personal arc.
Without going too far so as to avoid spoilers, the movie deals with a fair amount of personal loss and emotional tragedy in Armstrong’s life. It seems to partially be saying that Armstrong’s astronaut program focus was a result of some kind of avoidance of that pain. Throughout, Armstrong demonstrates a superhuman focus. I wouldn’t call it a resolve, and we have to separate this from the “prequel” film The Right Stuff. What Armstrong has, though “the right stuff”, is not just more of that American steel-gonads bravado.
It seems that the film, in my opinion, is proposing that Armstrong was a man who faced a fair amount of emotional pain. The idea which follows is that, perhaps, the man committed to the astronaut program as a way of getting involved in a project that was bigger than his pain.
As he embarks down this road, to transcend mortal life’s inherent setbacks, he comes closer and closer to his journey’s end. As he approaches that ending, the clarity of its importance sets into his heart. He becomes a man who is not prepared to fail. That is, who has no intention of allowing it. This means, at times, having to bury emotions, and run from pain. The movie bluntly shows how this manifests in negative ways in Armstrong’s family life. And yet, more than once, Armstrong survives situations which would have killed other men, and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Without batting an eyelash.
An unfortunate article from one of those “millennial” click bait sites has to see this in a bad light:
“Thankfully, we’re moving past that old-fashioned definition of masculinity. The feminist fight against patriarchy will benefit men as well as women, and missions like that of The Good Men Project aid in releasing men from those repressive restraints, so that all men, men like Neil Armstrong, don’t have to suffer in silence all the way to the moon.”
While they might have a point here about something, I think they really miss the point. I’ve read before that intelligent people are more likely to suffer depression. For some people, merely talking about your emotions, crying a little, receiving social validation from people who don’t really get it anyway – it’s not enough to paper over the deep, existential pain one can experience.
In some cases, especially for really bright people, you have to match a pain with a proportional triumph. I can’t really think of any other way to explain the emotional and intellectual circumstances which have built civilization as we know it.
American exceptionalism is not something libertarians take too seriously. But consider the idea as an ideal. There’s a poem, whose words once graced the parade route of the Air Force Academy. They’ve been replaced by words from the Air Force’s HR department’s politically correct “core values” (integrity, service, blah blah).
These were: “bring me men.”
Poem by Sam Walter Foss (The Coming American)
Bring me men to match my mountains;
Bring me men to match my plains, —
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
Bring me men to match my praries,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thought shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies;
Pioneers to clear Thought’s marshlands,
And to cleanse old Error’s fen;
Bring me men to match my mountains —
Bring me men!
Bring me men to match my forests,
Strong to fight the storm and blast,
Branching toward the skyey future,
Rooted in the fertile past.
Bring me men to match my valleys,
Tolerant of sun and snow,
Men within whose fruitful purpose
Time’s consummate blooms shall grow.
Men to tame the tigerish instincts
Of the lair and cave and den,
Cleans the dragon slime of Nature —
Bring me men!
Bring me men to match my rivers,
Continent cleavers, flowing free,
Drawn by the eternal madness
To be mingled with the sea;
Men of oceanic impulse,
Men whose moral currents sweep
Toward the wide-enfolding ocean
Of an undiscovered deep;
Men who feel the strong pulsation
Of the Central Sea, and then
Time their currents to its earth throb —
Bring me men!
I had to look up this Sam Walter Foss fellow. A 19th century New England librarian he was, having married the minister’s daughter. That’s about it, but these words are telling about the American character, and essential to the “point” of the moon landing, in my opinion. Here’s another poem he wrote, apropos:
A boy was born ‘mid little things,
Between a little world and sky,-
And dreamed not of the cosmic rings
Round which the circling planets fly.
He lived in little works and thoughts,
Where little ventures grow and plod,
And paced and plowed his little plots,
And prayed unto his little God.
But as the might system grew,
His faith grew faint with many scars;
The Cosmos widened in his view-
But God was lost among His Stars.
Another boy in lowly days,
As he, to little things was born,
But gathered lore in woodland ways,
And from the glory of the morn.
As wider skies broke on his view,
God greatened in his growing mind;
Each year he dreamed his God anew,
And left his older God behind.
He saw the boundless scheme dilate,
In star and blossom, sky and clod;
And as the universe grew great,
He dreamed for it a greater God.
Here we could comment on Transcendentalism, Continental Romanticism, the Enlightenment and so forth. Thankfully, there’s no need.
In the movie, Neil Armstrong is asked why it’s important to go to the moon. Previously, he had piloted an experimental plane to nearly the edge of space. He comments that being “up there” let’s us see new things.
I’m sorry that America’s universe grew a bit too big for it to handle. Empire is, no doubt, a sign of the American mind and soul losing God among His stars.
Going to the moon, however, represented the smallest effort to dream a greater God. Not that God ever changed, but that God as the American mind sees Him changed.
Foss’s “The Coming American” is not about mountains or prairies. It’s about the American Mind, and the moral character of the American spirit. The marshland, the raging rivers, these are the sins and temptations, also the struggles, that a “moral” character can face, and overcome.
In evaluating America’s hard turn toward Empire, I see small mindedness, and moral diminuitivity. American civilization declared that our way was good enough, good enough to impose by force, good enough to rest on our laurels, and trade the exploitation and suffering of other nations for our comfortable family life and big rocket ships.
And where did it take us? Now we’re more worried about emotional repressiveness than overcoming life’s mountains. And we haven’t stopped bombing people, either.
Still, the fuel which has unfortunately fed the American Empire still maintains good qualities.
When we look back on the American Empire, in the post-Empire centuries to come, perhaps we will see the moon landing as its most important and impressive legacy.
There might not be too much space activity now, but it’s something to know that it can be done. That’s not something easily forgotten.
I’ve quoted him before, but I like this statement from William Ellery Channing: “I call that mind free, which is jealous of its own freedom, which guards itself from being merged with others, which guards its empire over itself as nobler than the empire of the world.”
Westmoreland was busy fighting a land war in Asia, meanwhile, Neil Armstrong conquered his continent of pain and loss, and won for mankind a new world.
The movie makes one thing clear: the moon landing almost turned out differently, and history fails to see past the jubilant outcome to the tragedy that almost was. What made the difference in fact? A man with a firm mind, and a set of skills with years of focus and conviction behind them. A man who found a triumph greater than his pain.
It was a noble thing, irrespective of other issues.
Freedom is scary. It takes a certain quality of character, if it can work at all. I suppose I sound really old fashioned in saying so, but I would insist that libertarians consider as much.
Heaven forbid, I also mention that liberty itself requires a certain masculine spirit. Not men, necessarily, but I don’t think liberty is very compatible with today’s emotions-at-the-forefront society.
We’re going to have to remember, once the Empire falls.
Thankfully, even the Empire gave us some positive examples. American exceptionalism aside, in people like Neil Armstrong, there remains something of an American spirit that can lead liberty’s progress in the years to come.