Audiences don’t grade movies on degree of difficulty. Academy voters do, and they will recognize that “First Man” is a cinematic feat. Back in 2014, after he made “Whiplash,” Chazelle collaborated with screenwriter Josh Singer, impressed by his work on Julian Assange film “The Fifth Estate” (his Oscar for “Spotlight” came later). Chazelle wanted to show on film what it took for astronaut Neil Armstrong to land on the moon.
The filmmaker was not a space junkie growing up. The spark for him was how other movies like “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” never quite conveyed “how fragile and precarious and dangerous this was,” he said. “I imagined putting myself on top of a missile waiting for launch. I wanted to try to capture that.”
From the beginning, Chazelle wanted to “marry the big and the small with this movie,” he said. “This is a story of extremes: going to the moon, as far as any human has gone from Earth, the biggest cosmic journey in history, and then they’re making breakfast for their kids, figuring out how to make dinner for their friends, doing jigsaw puzzles, little family details that I found poignant. They tried to balance normalcy with most unnormal things ever. They didn’t think of themselves as walking around making history. In a way it became routine in this little bubble of Houston. For me at least, it’s unfathomable almost how that could become routine. I wanted the launches to be as a scary as they could be, and wanted the family life to be micro and textured.”
What Singer discovered in NASA-wonk James Hansen’s tech-heavy biography blew his mind. After filling his brain with details about test pilots and NASA’s technological race with the Soviets to the lunar surface, Singer identified four dramatic pillars of Armstrong’s life: his young daughter Karen’s death; his family anchor, wife Janet (“The Crown” Emmy-winner Claire Foy); the Gemini docking mission; and the moon landing. Chazelle and Singer took their pitch to Universal, and as Chazelle made “La La Land,” Singer got to work.
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Singer dug into the details of exactly what happened on Armstrong’s flights. The movie opens with his teeth-rattling X-15 escapade above the atmosphere, shot from inside the cockpit — for 8 pages — instead of going outside with wide exteriors. The filmmakers had to understand what he was doing as the windows went from blue to black and Armstrong frantically moved the stick and the aerodynamic and reaction controls as the altitude gauge went haywire. Chazelle shot these ’60s flights in 16 mm. “The more you learn, the more you really know what you don’t know,” said Chazelle. “It’s a never-ending abyss.”
For the Gemini docking mission, shot in 35 mm, the aviators interacted with the on-ground flight crew who get anxious when they lose touch with the astronauts. And when the flight director (Kyle Chandler) protectively shuts off Janet’s squawk box, she charges angrily over to Mission Control to face off against him. When he tries to reassure her that NASA has everything under control, she yells at him: “You are a bunch of boys making models out of Balsa wood!”
Chazelle didn’t just want to get close to Armstrong. He wanted the audience to experience and feel what he went through: the tragedy and loss of not only his daughter, but of several close friends. “We wanted to push you into his shoes, wanted you to know how serious it was for these folks,” said Singer. “People have forgotten, or maybe they didn’t know, how challenging it was. NASA had reasons to hide and soften things. They didn’t want you too know how much danger and sacrifice there was.”
Armstrong was a straight-arrow engineer and pilot, private and taciturn, a contained man of few words and little emotion, and Gosling plays him that way. So the filmmakers start out with a reenactment of an intense X-15 flight — one of three in which Armstrong faced serious flight issues while his daughter was dying. His bosses did not recommend him to become a Gemini astronaut. He volunteered after her death and threw himself back into work. At his daughter’s wake, Armstrong shutters himself in his study for a private cry.
“The death of his daughter in some ways shapes him,” said Singer. “Neil would push things down and compartmentalize. You see that from the onset. That’s what wreaks havoc, the sacrifice is at home.”
Adds Chazelle, “Neil had that all-American innocence, grew up on a cornfield in Iowa, learned to fly before he learned to drive. He had this boyish innocence, but there’s this sadness, as we interpreted it, hiding underneath. He’s smiling through sadness, which he compartmentalizes, kept it closed and spent his whole life outrunning it and never outran it. That was Ryan’s key into him, without betraying the fact that he was an introverted quiet and contained person who did not emote a ton.”
In his research, Gosling came up with a few colorful things to enliven his character, including an inspiring speech Armstrong gives at his NASA job interview about the rationale for space exploration: to get a shift in perspective on our planet. He also found one of the few laughs in the movie, when his chums find out about Armstrong’s entertaining college rewrite of Gilbert & Sullivan.
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The filmmakers decided that the key to Neil was Janet. “She was going to be his emotional center,” said Singer. “It’s the story of marriage that suffers blow after and blow and still the marriage manages to survive.” (While their two sons were helpful to the film, both Armstrong and his wife, who finally divorced him in 1994, have passed away.) Chazelle shoots the daringly quiet and domestic life in suburban Houston in claustrophobic close-up. He gave the actors two weeks of rehearsal and shot some of their improvisation on the fully built home sets. “At home, you had the press around you and death nipping at your heels,” said Singer.
Outspoken Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) was a gift. “Buzz has been known to speak his mind. He’s mostly telling an uncomfortable truth nobody wants to hear,” said Singer. “It’s a great character to have, the truth-teller.”
“In a community where everybody else doesn’t say what they’re thinking,” said Chazelle, “Buzz is the icebreaker.”
Of course, the last third of the movie takes us to the moon, and Chazelle opens up the screen with an extraordinary evocation of the Apollo 11 moon flight and landing — shot in stunning high-def IMAX. Again, he sticks with the POV of the astronauts as they pilot the spacecraft into orbit (we hear their conversations with mission control) and then take the lunar landing module down to the surface. “We’re with Neil,” said Singer. “We wanted to convey that tension, if we do it right, and stay close to the guys.”
Chazelle mimics some of the archive footage of the moon landing. “I approach a lot of it, so that it’s as much about what you don’t see as what you see. You only see the shadow and the dust, and then when the dust settles, everything is still. That’s more interesting than sticks on soil.”
The filmmakers were so driven to be accurate and true to history that Singer has published an annotated screenplay with their facts and fiction laid bare. We all know that Armstrong made it to the moon and back in 1969. Among those of us who are old enough, we remember where we were that night. But we don’t know if he left the particular memento behind that the movie suggests. Other moonwalkers left photos and personal objects. Armstrong did spend 10 minutes alone on the moon. The contents of his personal property kit are sealed until 2020. “We were so consumed with getting it right and getting Neil right,” said Singer, “that we would have never entirely made it up. It would have been a stretch too far.”
The filmmakers had experts check the film for accuracy and errors, which wreaked havoc on the post-production. In the editing room, Chazelle juggled mounds of documentary-like improvisations of family life in Houston, Justin Hurwitz’s varied score, and a complex sound design, as well as mammoth VFX. “We were aware of the risks through shooting and into post,” said Chazelle. “It was a tough one to find the balance between the epic space movie and the family documentary.”
Since the film debuted at Venice and played other fall festivals, both sides of the political divide read what they want into “First Man.” For their part, the filmmakers tried to root the narrative firmly in its time, when white men drove the political conversation and the moon mission was far from popular, as protestors challenged NASA’s use of taxpayer dollars.
“What we kept trying to go for is history and accuracy that’s revelatory, not conservative or liberal,” said Singer. “What this movie is about, as we face climate change, is what does it take to achieve, to drive the civilization forward?”