Damien Chazelle’s biopic dispels mythology and makes the moon landing a uniquely personal affair.
It’s one of the most iconic moments in human history. On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and took one small step onto the moon’s surface. Back on Earth, 530 million people were able to watch live as this singular figure put his boot on a desolate surface that no other human had ever touched. It was a shared experience and a triumph for all of humanity.
But what the new movie First Man does that few, if any, other films have done is show this history-defining moment through the eyes of Neil Armstrong.
Adapted from James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, First Man is certainly more interested in Neil Armstrong, than the Apollo program, NASA, the moon landing, or the world at large. But it goes to great lengths to get those personal details right and make the entire experience immersive and authentic.
Early on in First Man, Armstrong tells a group of his colleagues that “space exploration changes your perception. It allows us to see things that we should have seen a long time ago.” In many ways, this is an apt description of First Man. For decades, Armstrong was thought of as an all-American hero who achieved greatness thanks to all-American ingenuity. While that certainly is part of the astronaut’s tale, it isn’t the whole story.
“[Armstrong] was more multifaceted and more complicated than we’ve ever understood him to be” says Hansen, who was a co-producer on the film, “Everything you thought you knew about Neil Armstrong, you need to rethink.”
The movie depicts Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) as aloof, introverted, serious, intensely focused, closed-off, and brooding—far from the image we have of the smiling astronaut. Even as a child, Armstrong spent a lot of time alone reading and building. He wasn’t so much a loner as hyper-focused.
“His sister told me stories how he would be reading… and everybody would know to leave him alone,” says Hansen, “or building scale models that nobody dared to touch and mess them up.”
As he got older, these personality traits solidified. His work was his passion, something that made him a great engineer, test pilot, and astronaut, but perhaps made him struggle in other parts of life. “It’s fair to say that… he was more comfortable in the controls of a flying machine than he was in other circumstances where he wasn’t really in control,” Hansen says.
Armstrong’s two sons also applaud the film for showing a side of their father that the public didn’t really know. “There was a lot to dad,” says Mark Armstrong, now 55. “He was fun-loving, had a great sense of humor, and he was musical.”
The film also highlights his humility, a trait long thought to be the reason he was chosen over Buzz Aldrin to be the first to walk on the moon. “There were over 400,000 people who worked on the Apollo project,” says Armstrong’s oldest son Rick, “He always felt that perhaps he got more credit than he deserved for being the most visible [member of the team], but not necessarily more important.”
First Man also portrays Armstrong’s love of family as a driving motivation for his dangerous trip to the moon. The film focuses especially his daughter Karen, who died as a toddler because of complications from a rare form of brain cancer. It’s an understandable vulnerable spot in Armstrong’s armor, one that he refuses to discuss with his wife, Janet (played by Claire Foy). Both the movie and the book draw a direct line between Karen’s death in January 1962 and Armstrong’s decision to apply to become an astronaut later that year.
In the early 2000s, Hansen interviewed Armstrong (who died in 2012) for hours in preparation for writing his book. Though it had been decades since Karen’s death, Armstrong was still very reluctant to go there. “It’s truthful and authentic to connect the moon landing for Neil with the personal journey that traces back to the death of [his] daughter,” Hansen says.
Some mystery still remains about what exactly happened on Armstrong’s trip to the moon. While the feed caught a majority of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s visit to the lunar surface, it didn’t catch Armstrong’s quick (and “unscripted,” according to Hansen) jaunt to Little West Crater. This has left some to speculate what he did (or found) while over there.
We won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say, the movie takes its own creative license with that moment. When Hansen asked about Armstrong what he did or even what he was thinking during those precious few minutes he had in total privacy, he got a somewhat cryptic response which lead the author to believe that it was connected to the memory of his daughter, “Even at the time… I felt that this was maybe still so private. He kinda looked down when he answered the question. It may have been so private that he was withholding it.”
The Apollo 11 sequence and the moon landing scene are stunning, meant to be both extraordinary authentic and deeply intimate. How the production team were able to walk this fine line is a testament to movie magic. Everything from visual effects to sound editing was used to mimic what Armstrong and Aldrin experienced on that first trip to the moon.
“We leaned into the stuff that would make it a VR experience,” First Man’s Academy Award-winning editor Tom Cross tells Popular Mechanics. He says that it was a daunting task considering that director Damien Chazelle shot 1.7 million feet of film, which is more than 300 hours of footage.
But this amount of material allowed Cross to find those moments of extreme intimacy that make the audience feel like they are inside the claustrophobic capsule along with the astronauts. There are several moments in the film, with the camera tight on Armstrong’s face, that the audience can literally see specs of light dancing inside of his eye. According to Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Lambert, this was achieved with massive 35-foot tall, 65-foot wide half-cylinder LED screen.
“Rather than adding computer graphics in post, we filled the [LED screen] with actual of the Gemini launch, Apollo launch, and the approach to the moon,” says Lambert, “You get all of these reflections and interactive light… right inside of [Gosling’s] eyeball.”
Perhaps, more than the visuals, it’s the sound—and the lack of sound—that really makes First Man immersive. Sound editor Ai-Ling Lee explained to Popular Mechanics that they consulted with numerous astronauts, including Jim Lovell, about the exact sounds they heard while on their missions.
“How much of a constant roar it was on the outside… [but] when inside of the spacesuit, how little sound they heard. It was mainly just their own breathing and the airflow from the life support system.” So, to get this, they were able to find a video of astronaut John Young from Apollo 10 putting on his suit, and used the sounds of the airflow system, the clicking of the helmets being locked on, and the movement of the cuffs sliding onto hands.
“This added authenticity… using these close-up, textile sounds,” says Lee.
To get those realistic shaking, vibrations, and turbulence sounds, Lee and her co-sound editor Mildred Iatrou Morgan got creative. “Because this was a Universal film, we put contact mics on and recorded motion-simulator rides at the [Universal Studios Theme Park]…the Transformers and Simpsons ride,” says Lee. “We needed, physically, hands shaking and… [we] wanted sound that was real. We scouted different methods and this gave the most realistic, natural shake.”
This intense level of production and sound design gives First Man a different feel than previous space dramas, like Apollo 13 or Hidden Figures, one that feels so real you can’t help but get sucked into the story that’s unfolding.
But ultimately First Man is about sacrifice and perseverance. It doesn’t portray Armstrong, or, frankly, NASA, in the most positive of light—but that’s the point. Neil Armstrong was just like the rest of us—a flawed human shooting for the Moon. The difference is that he got there.