Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Christopher Abbott, Ciaran Hinds, Olivia Hamilton, Pablo Schreiber, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Ethan Embry, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Kris Swanberg
Screenplay by Josh Singer
Based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” by James R. Hansen
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Produced by Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle
Executive Producers, Steven Spielberg, Adam Merims, Josh Singer
Director of Photography, Linus Sandgren
Edited by Tom Cross
Costumes by Mary Zophres
Music by Justin Hurwitz
Visual Effects Supervisor, Paul Lambert
Production Designer, Nathan Crowley
“First Man” tells an emotional, dramatic, human-based, realistic, down-to-earth–but still suspenseful, action-packed and entertaining–biographical story about NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong, his family, his career, and his rise through the NASA ranks to eventually become the first man to walk on the moon, and director Damien Chazelle’s stirring, historical and always-watchable science-fact drama is simply one of the better films of this year, 2018.
This film hits all the right, intelligent—the film is consistently intelligent–filmic notes: tight, controlled, intelligent direction from Chazelle, the talented, young (Chazelle is only 33 years old!) director of “La La Land” and “Whiplash;” well-paced and well-timed editing, combining equal elements of drama, science, history, biography, action, real-life space exploration and an incredible re-creation of the 1969 moon landing; dazzling special affects grounded and rooted in realism; a great re-visit to the Gemini and Apollo NASA space programs of the 1950s and 1960s; much-required and accurate social, cultural, political and historical background to the space race of the 1960s that led to the moon walk and subsequent visits to the moon; great acting by a wonderfully-cast. extensive ensemble cast; equally extensive, well-researched and intricate attention to historically-appropriate 1950s and 1960s period details at all levels–clothes, cars, offices, buildings, rockets, houses and other aspects of production, set and art design; and many always-important and always-present—albeit in a very subtle, understated manner—messages, morals, lessons and themes about true heroism, dedication, hard work and sacrifice in life–and what that means for the individual, and for that individual’s family and friends.
Based on the thoroughly-researched book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by space and history professor and writer James Hansen, the movie version of “First Man” reflects Hansen’s tireless, exhaustive and impressive research into Armstrong’s life, presenting a portrait of a real man, a real person, a man grounded in reality, dedication, hard work, science, civic pride, exploratory ambition and family, friends and country–not some over-stated, bloated, cliched Hollywood version full of nationalistic macho silver screen heroics or cliched dialogue. In the film, Neil Armstrong is wonderfully presented and portrayed just as he was—a real man, somewhat quiet, very down-to-earth, not prone to bluster or bragging or bravado, soft-spoken, and actually, truly focused and drive by the missions of space exploration, landing and walking on the moon, all of the science involved in these goals, and what all of this means for his country, the world, space exploration, history—and exploration in general. Thankfully, Chazelle, screenwriter Josh Singer, actor Ryan Gosling, who excellently plays Armstrong, and the equally-talented cast all play their characters and their scenes in that aforementioned, realistic manner. And that is the film’s strength—this is a reality-based biography, untouched by the usual Hollywood clichés, mistakes, over-dramatizing and, again, overly-dramatic dialogue. If anything, the dialogue throughout “First Man” is intentionally sparse, tightly-edited, straightforward, to-the-point, lacking in overly-lyrical or overly-poetic flourishes, and very much rooted in intelligence and common sense.
And that’s how it should be—the heroism of the thousands of people who worked in the space program in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s doesn’t need to be over-dramatized or over-done, as the basic heroism of the missions simply speaks for themselves. Thousands of hard-working, dedicated government workers in hundreds of areas came together for one glorious period and tackled seemingly-impossible obstacles, challenges, odds and missions and succeeded in putting a man on the moon—actually, a couple of men on the moon. No one needs to over-dramatize such an amazing story—the story speaks clearly and strongly for itself.
And, as noted, that’s Chazelle’s, Singer’s and Gosling’s key approach in “First Man”—they keep things tight, close, up-close, personal, dramatic, always rooted in reality, and, in the case of Gosling’s Armstrong, they present Armstrong as that aforementioned quiet, soft-spoken, driven—but not in a crazy manner, intense—but not in a crazy manner, realistic, down-to-earth, common sense-rooted, intelligence-rooted and family-oriented scientist, pilot, explorer, family man and astronaut. One notable aspect of the story—and it’s not a spoiler—is the filmmaker’s intention to focus on how a very serious and traumatic family tragedy in Armstrong’s life affected his psyche, life, family life, work life and approach to life throughout his career and life in general. And while that personal tragedy is indeed a tragedy, how Armstrong handled it—in real life and in the film—is so touching, so heartfelt, so dramatic, well, it will just increase your respect and caring for Neil Armstrong even more.
“First Man” follows Armstrong’s career from the general period of the late 1950s and early 1960s through the exuberant, joyous moment when he literally set foot on the moon in the summer of 1969. Along the way, Chazelle, Singer and Harden are, again, intelligent enough to not just present Armstrong’s singular story, but they also successfully tell the concurrent stories of the space program, NASA, the space race, the Gemini and Apollo programs—successes and failures of these programs, as the ups and downs should be noted, and—notably—they also present the concurrent societal, cultural, political, civic, community and governmental stories that were going on throughout the 1960s and that directly affected the space program. The filmmakers are correct in including side stories about the debilitating, dividing and disastrous Vietnam war and the increasingly vocal, active and successful anti-war protests, the increasing societal strife in the country and the world, the actual protests against the space program itself, which actually led to the end of the increasingly expensive moon missions, the drastic changes in society, and the impact of the astronauts’ careers on their families, co-workers, friends and acquaintances. That sounds like a lot to pack into one film, but Chazelle, Singer and Harden are smart enough to wisely and creatively tie all of this together in montages, news reports, discussions, news items and office, family and neighborhood discussions that are indeed all connected to the main, over-arching story of Neil Armstrong.
For the 1960s was, of course, not just about the space race and landing on the moon. The space race occurred during one of the most turbulent, violent, divisive, challenging, scary and changing time periods in the world’s history. Although the moon landing was indeed a great victory for the United States, mankind (as Armstrong wisely noted as he first stepped on the moon) and history, that victory would soon be overshadowed by a violent storm barrage of societal, governmental, political and cultural tides of change, including but not limited to the corruption of the Nixon administration, the Vietnam war, Watergate, increasing urban problems, energy crises, inflation, demonstrations, the counterculture, the generation gap, and increasing United States societal problems that led to actual protests against the Apollo program, with protestors citing the increasing costs to taxpayers as education, environmental, housing, poverty, crime, pollution, population, immigration, literacy, health and other myriad problems started to pile up. How does this relate to Neil Armstrong and “First Man?” In every way possible. While Armstrong quietly became a hero, became legendary, helped provide a bright spot for the United States and the world, and became the first man to walk on the moon, he also knew that that heroism, success and dedication came at a price, a steep price, not just to him, but to his family, his friends, his country and the world.
Thus, all of this comes together in “First Man” to present just simply an exceptionally intelligent, challenging, stirring, rousing, suspenseful and entertaining biography, history lesson, science tale and morality play about what it takes in a man or woman to reach such a level of success in the world—and the costs of all of that hard work, dedication, time, sweat and heroism. The cost was indeed worth it in the end for Neil Armstrong, the United States, and the world, but, as the film teaches us, that cost was never easy, never simple, and filled with very human emotion of the most real, heartfeld kind. Armstrong has a loving wife and great kids, and a network of wonderful neighbors, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, scientists and astronauts that he interacts with, works with, socializes with and respects, yet he has to commit to a mission that everyone knows could end up disastrous—even fatal—as some previous missions indeed ended. Yet Armstrong soldiers on, willing to live and fight another day, and he remains dedicated to the mission at hand—that is indeed true heroism, and “First Man” does present Armstrong’s dedication and heroism in a most consistently respectable manner.
The excellent ensemble cast shines in every role, but Claire Foy’s dramatic, heart-wrenching portrayal of Armstrong’s wife is so emotional, Foy may indeed prompt a tear or too from filmgoers, and that’s okay. Go ahead and cry—imagine if your spouse was headed in a rocket up into space to the moon, with a horrible, lingering fear that he and his fellow astronauts may not come back alive. That sounds dire, but everyone in the space program knew this was a risk—a calculated risk—but they carried on in the most professional manner, and, of course, thankfully, they did indeed succeed with Armstrong’s mission. That’s not a spoiler, either, by the way! Like with many biographies, it doesn’t matter if everyone knows the outcome of the story, it’s the telling of the story that matters, and, as noted, “First Man” succeeds on every level.
The final sequences documenting the actual Apollo mission to the moon and the actual moon landing are just simply breathtaking, dazzling, amazing, suspenseful and wondrously recreated with modern-day technology and special effects, to great success. Again, even if everyone knows that Armstrong lingered on that ladder, spoke those famous words and was indeed the first man to step onto the moon’s gray, cratered, mysterious surface, the sequences showing all of this in “First Man” are inspiring, awe-inspiring and, again, wonderfully produced. One can’t help but get all choked up again at the pure emotion of watching the first human step foot on the moon, and re-live that joyful moment, a brief, bright, shining moment of pure exuberance and excitement! “First Man,” again, presents all of this in a straightforward, clearcut, realistic manner, without overdoing a second of the scene. Yet, it’s all still amazing to watch!
Credit must go to the creative teams that worked so hard not just on the moon-mission and moon-landing sequences, but on many of the other science-fact NASA mission scenes in “First Man.” Director of photography Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, costumer Mary Zophres (imagine the costuming task of providing costumes and wardrobe and accompanying props to not just the astronauts, but the hundreds of NASA scientists at the office, and the many people at houses and other locations, all dressed to represent the 1960s), music composer Justin Hurwitz, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert, and production designer Nathan Crowley—several of whom also worked with Chazelle on “La La Land” and on “Whiplash”—are all to be praised and applauded for their exceptional work throughout “First Man.” Look for several of these artists—and, likely, Chazelle, Singer, Gosling and Foy—to be in strong contention for the 2018 Academy Awards. In fact, just look for “First Man” to be one of the major Academy Award contenders for 2018, in general.
And Singer and Harden deserve credit for their well-researched writing. But it’s worth delving into the studio’s production notes to provide some background on how Harden pursued Armstrong for his book. From the studio:
“Based on James R. Hansen’s book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong,” First Man reveals intimate insights into the global hero’s private life and previously unknown character-defining moments. After receiving a PhD in the history of science and technology from Ohio State and spending more than 20 years writing and teaching about space and history, Hansen set out to write his first biography. It was in the year 2000 that the author first reached out to Armstrong and requested to tell the hero’s tale. After two months, Armstrong—who rarely agreed to interviews, much less entertained the idea of a lifelong documentation—politely declined.
“It would be some time after Hansen’s initial request before the pilot gave the go-ahead to pen his biography. “It took about two years for me to finally get the greenlight from him,” reflects the author. “Neil’s family encouraged him to do it. The crucial moment came when he invited me up to his home in suburban Cincinnati—where he had lived for about 20 years—and we spent the afternoon in his study talking for hours. I felt very positive, but even after this meeting it took some time for him to fully get on board.” Hansen saw the duality of his subject as a fascinating one. “Neil could be in a cockpit making instantaneous decisions but when it came to other things about his life, he was amazingly cautious and deliberate.”
“Long prior to his in-person introduction to Armstrong, Hansen had conducted hundreds of interviews for other subjects; it was that experience taking oral histories that aided in gaining Armstrong’s confidence. “One thing that became important with him was his developing trust in you,” Hansen explains. “Not only did we grow up 50 miles from one another—he grew up in Ohio and I grew up in Indiana, and went to school at Ohio State—but both our families had also grown up on farms. In a lot of ways, we spoke the same language, in terms of regional dialect. What we know of Neil is as this one dimensional, iconic symbol…but he was a living, breathing, three-dimensional human being.”
From the studio:
Known by the public as a reclusive individual, Neil Armstrong was so much more in the eyes of his family and the people who held him close. Younger son Mark Armstrong hopes the film brings to light the person his father truly was. “I hope people see him as a man who was faced with very difficult circumstances,” says Mark Armstrong. “A lot was asked of him, and he did his best to do the right thing. That was always his mantra: to take each situation and find the right way to handle it.”
“He was just kind of a regular guy,” adds Mark’s brother, Neil’s elder son, Rick Armstrong. “For those who just saw him on the news might not know that, but he was a pretty funny guy, too. When you saw him around his friends, he was a completely different person than his public image. I’m hoping that the movie will help bring that out.”
The Armstrong family can now rest easy—“First Man” presents Neil Armstrong in all positive, humanistic manners of his personality, to the film’s credit—and to Armstrong’s credit!
Finally, some more insight and background, from the studio:
It was crucial to the production team not simply to tell a story about a hero of whom we’ve seen many pictures and interviews, but to explore what drove him, his family and colleagues at NASA to accomplish the unthinkable. “This is a story about how hard it was, how much of a risk it was, how dangerous it was to all of those men,” says First Man executive producer Adam Merims. “Neil started out in the Korean War as a pilot and then became a test pilot for the Air Force, then ultimately for NASA. At that time test pilots would die with alarming frequency, so many people in the early part of the story in his life were killed; yet Neil stayed true to his path and achieved what was previously considered unachievable.”
Armstrong developed a close kinship to the author of his biography, who serves as a co-producer on the film, and that indeed allowed the production to move forward. “Neil had a great relationship with Jim Hansen, and he felt very comfortable with the idea that Jim had captured in his book—and what he had hoped to convey,” says First Man producer Wyck Godfrey. “Neil thought that as long as we followed the blueprint that Jim provided, he was comfortable with us moving forward with making this film.”
Although known for being a very private person, after meeting the filmmakers, Armstrong agreed to a movie adaptation of his life. Fortunate to have been introduced to Armstrong before he passed away on August 25, 2012, Godfrey explains that there was no way to make this film without his blessing. “It was a gratifying experience to be able to meet him,” states the producer. “Neil was very open to the idea of making a movie about his life. If he wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”
So how about that? Neil Armstrong himself gave the go-ahead, the green light, to the filmmakers of “First Man,” and he cooperated extensively with the author of the book that inspired the screenplay for “First Man.” That all seems so right, so correct, so perfect—and so intelligent. Just like the subject of “First Man” himself, Neil Armstrong.
To watch the excellent film that is “First Man,” and to know that Neil Armstrong himself gave his permission to the basic blueprint of “First Man,” one can’t help but feel the over-arching presence, influence, dedication, commitment, drive, passion and intelligence of Neil Armstrong throughout the entire experience that is “First Man.” And filmgoers simply can’t expect much more from a movie-going experience that to feel the presence and influence throughout “First Man” of one of history’s greatest pilots, scientists, astronauts, explorers–and heroes, Neil Armstrong.