Since I watched The American Factory and Untouchable (first Weinstein #METOO documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival, I’ve been sensitive to the workplace lessons presented by well made films.

Last night I watched the superb First Man, Damien Chazelle’s (La La Land, Whiplash) story of Neal Armstrong, the first man to step on the moon. I also watched the stunning Apollo 11 documentary at Sundance, which distilled 300 hours of 70 mm cinema-quality film of the mission into an outstanding 1 ½ hour doc (won editing Award).

Neal Armstrong was a larger than Life hero and possesses a cold engineer-driven ability to overcome fear and act even during crisis. The movie portrayed him as a prot0-post WW II man who guards his emotions and is austere and aloof in many interactions.

However, there is a reason for his locked away feelings and increasingly obvious inner pain and problems with his stalwart wife (Claire Foy) and children. The movie opens with many shots of doting dad, Neal Armstrong, with his wife, son and much adored daughter. She then develops cancer and despite Armstrong’s herculean efforts, she dies young. One poignant scene shows an emotionless Armstrong sneak away from the visitation to his office, lock his door, and sob uncontrollably. He never shows emotion or even talks about her for the remainder of the movie, although it is obvious that she is seldom far from his mind. He only mentions her once to his faithful best friend.

He won’t show emotion. He can’t talk about fear and barely tolerates questions from a press who worships astronauts. Meanwhile, he is resolutely loyal to friends, still loves his wife even though he hurts her, and single-mindedly makes the space program succeed. He’s brilliant and my generation would also say that “he clanks” when he walks. And hey, it’s Ryan Gosling, with his expressive face, so of course we pull for him and share his pain.

Workplace Deaths and Catastrophes.

It is standard operating procedure for employers to bring in grief counselors after a workplace fatality, and increasingly our “manly” culture acknowledges that it’s human and completely manly to have the crap kicked out of you to lose a coworker, or even worse, someone for whom you were responsible.

Survivor guilt is applicable to workplace fatalities. Over my 570+ workplace fatalities, I’ve observed that after the numbness of the first 24-hours, coworkers feel unmerited guilt and in response look for anyone and anything to blame. This is one reason why coworkers inaccurately make comments like “we knew it was coming,” or “everyone knew it was unsafe.” While such comments are attention getting, they are rarely true.

As to the supervisors, we’ve seen men and woman ruined by the loss of a subordinate. It’s common for supervisors who lost an employee to never come back to work, even though they did nothing wrong.

Consider that Neal Armstrong lost 10 or 12 colleagues at Edward’s airbase as a test pilot and at NASA, culminating with his best friend astronaut Ed White, ably played by Jason Clarke, in the tragic Apollo 1 fire during an O2 test.

See my earlier Post on responding to employees who lose someone.

Broader Application to the Workplace.

Psychological and biochemical studies show that not only physical fatigue, but depression, family troubles and other stressors result in fatigue, diminished judgment, and weakened responses. Studies now show that fatigued executives are more likely to commit ethical and judgment violations.

In the scene where NASA interviews Armstrong for the space program, they ask him whether the recent death of his daughter would affect his performance and matter-of-factly states only that “I cannot imagine that it would not.”

Employers still underuse Wellness Programs and fail to train frontline supervisors to be sensitive to when off duty problems can affect effectiveness and even safety. Wellness efforts are also woefully underused to equip employees’ families to respond to opiate issues and conditions leading to workplace violence.


Amazon – First Man.

Rotten Tomatoes - First Man (87%).

Apollo 11 Trailer: The Moon Landing Documentary Critics Call ‘Astonishing’ (IndieWire)

A few other Movie observations:

  • Both movies are superbly edited and the soundtracks are brilliant. In the Apollo 11 Documentary, even though you know how the story ends, the soundtrack is one of the reasons that you stay on the edge of your seat.
  • As my film critic son would say, the sound in First Man “is off the chain.” I had no idea about how terrifying the noise of a giant rocket were in takeoff.
  • Grotesquely unfairly, some right-leaning commentators accused First Man of being unpatriotic because it did not show Armstrong planting the flag. The whole movie is a love letter to the USA space effort! The Director spent little time focusing on the moon activities because he had clear goals of what he wanted to show about Armstrong and how he, in some ways, finally made peace with his daughter’s death as he stared at the amazing majesty of the moon surface with Earth handing above. You’ll tear up.
  • The movie was pre-OSHA and operated with a get-it-done, we’ll-pay-the-cost mentality. A fascinating side story is how NASA turned around safety (and efficiency) after the loss of the Space shuttle.
  • After again seeing what the wives endured, I can now see why my wife loved the book, The Astronauts’ Wives.
  • Astonishingly, First Man built sets and did NOT much use green screen/CGI as do most similar movies!
  • Texans and indie movie fans should be proud that Neon bought the Apollo 11 Documentary and several outstanding Sundance Films such as Monos. Neon is the Film Company co-founded by Tim League, who owns the legendary Alamo Drafthouse.