The Neil Armstrong biopic ‘First Man’ captures early spaceflight’s terror
First Man is not a movie about the moon landing.
The Neil Armstrong biopic, opening October 12, follows about eight years of the life of the first man on the moon, and spends about eight minutes depicting the lunar surface. Instead of the triumphant ticker tape parades that characterize many movies about the space race, First Man focuses on the terror, grief and heartache that led to that one small step.
“It’s a very different movie and storyline than people expect,” says James Hansen, author of the 2005 biography of Armstrong that shares the film’s name and a consultant on the film.
The story opens shortly before Armstrong’s 2-year-old daughter, Karen, died of a brain tumor in January 1962. That loss hangs over the rest of the film, setting the movie’s surprisingly somber emotional tone. The cinematography is darker than most space movies. Colors are muted. Music is ominous or absent — a lot of scenes include only ambient sound, like a pen scratching on paper, a glass breaking or a phone clicking into the receiver.
Karen’s death also seems to motivate the rest of Armstrong’s journey. Getting a fresh start may have been part of the reason why the grieving Armstrong (portrayed by Ryan Gosling) applied to the NASA Gemini astronaut program, although he never explicitly says so. And without giving too much away, a private moment Armstrong takes at the edge of Little West crater on the moon recalls his enduring bond with his daughter.
Hansen’s book also makes the case that Karen’s death motivated Armstrong’s astronaut career. Armstrong’s oldest son, Rick, who was 12 when his father landed on the moon, agrees that it’s plausible. “But it’s not something that he ever really definitively talked about,” Rick Armstrong says.
Armstrong’s reticence about Karen — and almost everything else — is true to life. That’s not all the film got right. Gosling captured Armstrong’s gravitas as well as his humor, and Claire Foy as his wife, Janet Armstrong, “is just amazing,” Rick Armstrong says.
Beyond the performances, the filmmakers, including director Damien Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer, went to great lengths to make the technical aspects of spaceflight historically accurate. The Gemini and Apollo cockpits Gosling sits in are replicas of the real spacecraft, and he flipped switches and hit buttons that would have controlled real flight. Much of the dialog during space scenes was taken verbatim from NASA’s control room logs, Hansen says.
The result is a visceral sense of how frightening and risky those early flights were. The spacecraft rattled and creaked like they were about to fall apart. The scene of Armstrong’s flight on the 1966 Gemini 8 mission, which ended early when the spacecraft started spinning out of control and almost killed its passengers, is terrifying. The 1967 fire inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, which killed astronauts Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, is gruesome.
“We wanted to treat that one with extreme care and love and get it exactly right,” Hansen says. “What we have in that scene, none of it’s made up.”
Even when the filmmakers took poetic license, they did it in a historical way. A vomit-inducing gyroscope that Gosling rides in during Gemini astronaut training was, in real life, used for the earlier Mercury astronauts, but not for Gemini, for instance. Since the Mercury astronauts never experienced the kind of dizzying rotation that the gyroscope mimicked, NASA dismantled it before the next group of astronauts arrived.
“They probably shouldn’t have dismantled it,” Hansen says — it did simulate what ended up happening in the Gemini 8 accident. So the filmmakers used the gyroscope experience as foreshadowing.
Meanwhile, present-day astronauts are not immune to harrowing brushes with death: a Russian Soyuz capsule carrying two astronauts malfunctioned October 11, and the astronauts had to evacuate in an alarming “ballistic descent.” NASA is currently talking about when and how to send astronauts back to the moon from American soil. The first commercial crew astronauts, who will test spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX, were announced in August.
First Man is a timely and sobering reminder of the risks involved in taking these giant leaps.