Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by space travel. The seeds were planted in science fiction movies like Star Wars (1977) but my interest intensified in the early 1980s with the United States Space Shuttle program. If kids in the 1960s and 1970s had the space race between the Americans and the Russians, my generation had the Shuttles – incredible spacecraft that would hurtle into outer space to launch telescopes or rendezvous with space stations. The tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986 where it exploded 73 seconds into its flight was a sobering reminder of the danger of these endeavors.
My interest in the Space Shuttles dovetailed with the release of The Right Stuff (1983), a historical biopic about the Mercury Seven astronauts that playfully exposed their flaws and celebrated these brave men. Over the years, my interest in the subject continued with films like Apollo 13 (1995) and so when it was announced that a biopic chronicling Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon was being made I was all in.
First Man (2018) is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land (2016) and reunited him with his leading man Ryan Gosling playing Armstrong. As a result, anticipation for the film was high and then it failed to perform at the box office despite mostly glowing reviews. Some have speculated that the frivolous controversy over the omission of the planting of the American flag on the Moon as being unpatriotic may have turned off mainstream audiences, it was more likely Gosling’s historically accurate, reserved take on Armstrong, coupled with a somewhat detached point-of-view that probably turned off filmgoers. Who cares? First Man is a thoughtful, moving film that takes a visceral approach to the challenges of traveling into outer space.
Much like The Right Stuff, First Man starts off by putting its protagonist in peril. Armstrong (Gosling) is testing the X-15 rocket-powered plane by pushing it and him to the absolute limits as he escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a gripping, visceral experience punctuated by a brief break of serene beauty as he takes a moment to admire the view of our planet from such a great distance. This soon gives way to sweaty, white knuckled panic as he has trouble re-entering the atmosphere. Chazelle makes sure we experience it right along with Armstrong and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
It’s 1961 and Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the death of their young daughter Karen. The taciturn Armstrong internalizes his feelings in front of everyone, only grieving by himself in private. He processes her death and goes immediately back to work but the powers that be ground him. While dealing with paperwork he notices a pamphlet for Project Gemini, whose focus will be on space exploration. In 1962, he applies for and is accepted into the program. The rest of First Man chronicles his journey and some of the challenges he faced on the way to achieving his goal: landing on the Moon.
Unlike The Right Stuff, First Man plays the astronaut training scenes straight-faced with the physical exercises depicted as grueling affairs that best the most determined men, like Armstrong, and the most confident, like Ed White (Jason Clarke), who are all pushed to their physical and mental limits. He spends little screen-time on this aspect of the program as it has already been depicted numerous times before.
Chazelle makes interesting choices on how he depicts certain events, like how Ed tells Neil about their friend and fellow astronaut Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) dying in a jet crash. Instead of going for the obvious close-ups on anguished faces, he shoots both men silhouetted in the frame of Armstrong’s front door. They accept the news with no emotion having been trained to be cool under pressure but when Armstrong comes back into the kitchen with his wife and son, Gosling conveys the inner turmoil through his expressive eyes and how every facial muscle clenches as Armstrong fights to keep in the emotions he’s feeling about the death of one of his closest friends.
Most of the film is experienced through Armstrong’s perspective. When he goes up in the Gemini 8, Chazelle depicts it through his P.O.V., quite often showing us what he sees – a seemingly endless array of dials and switches and then cutting to close-ups of Armstrong’s face as he reacts to this extraordinary experience. Once the rocket launches, Chazelle bombards us with a cacophony of sights and sounds as the noisy rocket shakes and vibrates violently, escaping the Earth’s atmosphere in an incredibly intense sequence.
Chazelle ratchets up the tension even more when Armstrong’s spacecraft suddenly loses control and plummets via a violent continuous left roll towards the Earth. The G-forces cause his co-pilot to pass out and within seconds of passing out himself, Armstrong manages to gain control, which is conveyed in jarring close-ups and kinetic editing as Chazelle cuts from Armstrong’s panicked eyes to the various switches and mechanisms he utilizes to keep alive. Chazelle juxtaposes these intense moments of Neil at work with his downtime at home presented in elegiac fragments reminiscent of the family scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). They aren’t traditional scenes with a beginning, middle and ending, but rather snapshots of the Armstrong family dynamic.
Gosling is excellent, delivering a complex portrait of Neil Armstrong. He digs deep and shows the man’s private side, how he doesn’t show emotion to anyone, even, at times, his wife, preferring to express it alone. His generation saw emotion as a sign of weakness. Any private reservations he has he keeps to himself. This lack of communication comes to a head, however, on the eve of his mission to the Moon. Janet finally has had it and confronts him, forcing her husband to talk to their children about the danger of the mission. It might be the last time they see him and she wants Armstrong to let their children know that. He is not afraid of many things but having an open and honest conversation with his family terrifies him. Gosling is incredible in this scene as he conveys how uncomfortable Armstrong feels in this situation, answering his children’s questions like a press briefing as he doesn’t know any other way. Gosling conveys the emotions brimming under the surface in his eyes while his body language gives nothing else away. It is this unflappable nature that makes Armstrong a brilliant astronaut but not the greatest husband and father.
For all his stoicism, Chazelle shows a lighter side to Armstrong when he and his wife recount how he wrote lyrics in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan to the faux disbelief of their friends as they all break up into laughter. This is an important scene as it humanizes Armstrong. This portrait of the man feels authentic but it isn’t very audience-friendly. He isn’t an easy person to relate to or like and Gosling’s natural charisma tempers this somewhat but he doesn’t try to go for the easy route nor does the film and make you like him. It forces the audience to meet him on his own terms, which probably hurt its commercial appeal.
Jason Clarke turns in another wonderfully solid performance as Ed White, Armstrong’s best friend and one of the few people able to penetrate the man’s stoic exterior. He’s an astronaut, too, so he knows what Armstrong is going through but even he can’t relate to the part of him that is still dealing with the death of a child. He is aware of his inscrutable nature and allows White in further than anyone else. After the death of See, Armstrong doesn’t want to let anyone else get too close as he knows how dangerous their job is and doesn’t want to mourn yet another person close to him. When one of their own dies on a mission they all think that could have been them. That’s the reality of their existence: there is always a high probability that they won’t come back and First Man shows how it affects Armstrong and his family.
The actual mission to the Moon is masterfully recreated with Chazelle capturing all the technical details while also allowing for a bit of artistic license that feels right and remains true to the spirit of Armstrong’s character as he finally gets closure on his daughter’s death. While there is a certain amount of tension conveyed in the actual landing on the Moon (they almost run out of fuel), Chazelle tempers this with the wonderment of being there in a way that has not been done before in a fictional film. Everything Armstrong has done in his life has prepared him for this moment and instead of underlining how momentous landing on the Moon was for the United States and for the world, the director opts for showing what it means to Armstrong.
In 2014, Damien Chazelle was approached by the producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey with the book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen they’d optioned for Universal Pictures. Initially, he had little interest in Armstrong or the space program and was unsure about doing an adaptation as well as something based on real life. Everything he had done before had been made up and personal. The more he read about the man, though, the more he was intrigued about the very private person that had experienced multiple tragedies, which included the loss of his home in a fire and the death of his daughter at age three. Chazelle was also able to find a personal connection – he could identify with the hard work it took to achieve something and realize a dream. He pitched First Man to Ryan Gosling but they started talking about La La Land instead and made that first. The director felt that both Gosling and Armstrong shared similar qualities: introverted, cool-under-pressure and men of few words. Working with the actor on La La Land and getting to know him personally confirmed that Gosling was right for the role.
Chazelle began looking for a screenwriter that could do the research needed and then transform it into a narrative. He met Josh Singer in 2015 and liked his passion for the project. While Chazelle was shooting La La Land, Singer worked on the script. For research, they visited NASA and met a few of the surviving astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as well as spending time with Neil’s wife, Janet.
As he began assembling his crew for the film, he sought out Nathan Crowley, the production designer on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), as he admired his practical approach: in-camera effects, miniatures, full-scale replicas, and lived-in sets. The look of the film was inspired by the archival materials that were uncovered during research and this included photographs the astronauts took in space, the LIFE magazine photos of the family, old home movies, photos the astronaut families shared, and seeing actual capsules. He also eschewed obvious themed films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Apollo 13 in favor of films like Battle of Algiers (1966) and The French Connection (1971) that opted for gritty realism. He ended up compiling a 300-page dossier of images that the crew nicknamed “The Notebook” (in reference to the Gosling film of the same name) that he could refer to during the 58-day shoot.
Chazelle worked hard to separate the man from the mythology and wanted to show his range of emotions. He was interested looking at Armstrong on the family level with his wife and children. He also wanted to depict lesser known aspects of Armstrong’s life, like how he almost died in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle while training for the Moon landing. Chazelle also wanted to remind people “how dangerous that first era of space travel really was,” and “make it as scary and uncertain as it really was.”
During filming, Chazelle told his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, “imagine we’re a fly on the wall, carrying a camera, running and gunning with these astronauts.” He wanted to do as much “in camera” as possible and for the actors to see what the audience would see, so if they saw the Earth out a window it was on a 35-foot-tall, 65-foot-wide LED screen. To film the space flight sequences, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert used the screen to project 90 minutes of digital imagery created for the film. A replica spacecraft was built and mounted on a gimbal and synchronized to move in sync with footage on the screen. This allowed the astronauts’ surroundings to be filmed in real time. The footage consisted of 20 cans of 70mm NASA footage that was discovered at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama that had not been viewed in decades as the equipment to project it no longer existed. The filmmakers digitally processed and cleaned up the footage and used it in the finished film. Other footage, like the Saturn V rocket falling away was done with models built at varying scales. No blue-screen or green-screen was used in any shot. Only 726 effects shots were added in post-production.
To stand in for the Moon, Chazelle and his team found the Vulcan Rock Quarry south of Atlanta. Crowley and his team sculpted five acres of it to replicate the Sea of Tranquility. Shooting on location, however, proved to be challenging. On the first day it snowed and the schedule was pushed back a week. The specially built lamp that was 15 feet long, 200,000 watts – the most powerful movie light ever built to simulate the sun – exploded and caught fire 30 minutes into shooting due to the freezing temperatures.
First Man received mostly positive critical notices. In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott felt that the film was "strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment – into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination – that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt." Entertainment Weekly gave the film "A-" and Chris Nashawaty wrote, "Where the film really comes alive, though, is when it leaves the ground and soars into the heavens with all of its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and majesty. You’ve never seen a movie that captures space flight with this degree of authenticity." The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote, "Instead, the movie seeks to remold its protagonist in the image of our own era; it tells us more about us than it does about him." In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, "It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: it has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet. There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realising what that represents."
It is the emphasis on the intimate in favor of the epic that helps First Man stand out from other films of its ilk. We know the actual event’s place in history and Chazelle opts for telling a more personal story about the man, never losing sight of that right down to the understated yet moving conclusion as Janet meets her husband after he returns from the Moon. Hopefully, it will find a new life on home video and rekindle interest in space exploration, something that people used to dream about and has become forgotten over the years as we’ve become mired in a multitude of earthbound problems.
Davids, Brian. “How Damien Chazelle’s First Man Took a Page Out of Christopher Nolan’s Playbook.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 12, 2018.
Galloway, Stephen. “Damien Chazelle Shoots the Moon: Oscar’s Youngest Best Director Grows Up with First Man.” The Hollywood Reporter. August 22, 2018.
Rottenberg, Josh. “How First Man Director Damien Chazelle and His Visual Effects Team Took Moviegoers to the Moon.” Los Angeles Times. October 16, 2018.