How do you make a biopic about one of the most famous men of the twentieth century but who was famously private and discreet? There can be few people on the planet who don’t know who Neil Armstrong was, or rather what he did. But do many of us even know what the astronaut looked like?
He was one of the most famous people of modern times. His name, and one short quote, are known all round the world. But most people would find it difficult to recognise him on a photo. Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the Moon, but didn’t feel that made him anything special. Which doesn’t make it easy to make a film of his life.
Armstrong, who died in 2012, was known for being quiet and reflective. He rarely gave interviews, and left NASA two years after the Moon landing, spending the rest of his career teaching aeronautics, and in business. It took science writer James R. Hansen more than two years to persuade Armstrong to let him write his life story. That biography, First Man, came out in 2005 and has now been adapted into a film. Armstrong was able to give his blessing to the film before he died, and his family have been closely involved with the film. One of his sons even has a cameo role in the movie.
The film First Man reunites Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling, director and star of the Oscar-winning La La Land. It focuses on the decade leading up to the historic Moon Landing in July 1969.
Producer Wyck Godfrey explains, “Damien wanted to treat the story like a thriller. He wanted to put you in the shoes of what it would have been like at the time—with all of the technological barriers facing these guys.” It may seem impossible to create suspense when the entire world knows the mission succeeded, but Chazelle achieves it by putting the spotlight on the many disasters and setbacks that led up to the Apollo 11 mission. He tries to put the audience in the position of the NASA teams and astronauts’ families: they never knew what new problem could appear. There were all the technical challenges of getting the astronauts to the Moon, but also complete unknowns about conditions on the Moon. As one of Armstrong’s young sons says in the film, “Do you think you’re coming back?”
Armstrong’s family had had plenty of experience of the risks his profession involved. He had been flying since he was 16, and had received several medals for his actions in the Korean War. He had then been a test pilot for military jets – which was an incredibly dangerous job, as is shown in the 1983 film The Right Stuff. Armstrong had many close calls and lost several friends and colleagues.
The space program was also extremely dangerous. The first Apollo mission never blasted off – in January 1967, it caught fire on the launch pad, killing the three astronauts on board. The first successful manned Apollo flight was Apollo 7, which took place in October 1968, only nine months before the Moon mission.
Universal / Daniel McFadden