Film Review: First Man
In the days following First Man’s release last Friday, reviews and articles immediately started pouring online. Unlike other writers, I need time to integrate experiences before writing about them. So, I’ve decided to do something different. At the end of this paragraph is a small selection of articles and reviews which already hold influence. Similar to an historiography section of an academic paper, my colleagues’ original works will help create a frame through which my own is better understood. In this review, I intend to asynchronously analyze some of the details that previous scholarship, as it were, perhaps did not engage, and explain my personal reaction as well.
I first saw the film in IMAX with fellow Space Hipsters on premiere night, and my second viewing was a 10pm showing by myself in a standard cinema. IMAX is an immersing and powerful experience, but it can also detract from the subtler points of the cinematography and motifs. First Man is no exception. On the second viewing, I was able to take three pages of notes, mostly on details that went unnoticed the first time from sheer excitement. If you greatly enjoyed the film, I recommend seeing it in both formats, especially since IMAX has shots on the lunar surface that the regular cut does not, and the regular cut is quieter and more subdued.
On that note, the most bewitching scenes for me were in IMAX’s depiction of the Moon’s surface. All spaceflight enthusiasts try to imagine how that “beautiful desert,” to paraphrase a few Apollo astronauts, looks in person. Most Moonwalkers say very similar things: the texture and contrast depend on which way you’re facing in the sunlight, that there are myriad tiny craters, the regolith (soil/dust) becomes somewhat different in color, even iridescent at times, once it is disturbed. They also say how blinding the sun is, especially in the contrast of the velvety black sky where the coin-sized “jewel of Earth” (quote, Charlie Duke) hangs above you like “a Christmas ornament” (quote, Jim Irwin). All of that is experienced in 1/6th gravity, seen from within a bulky spacesuit, where the only sound is your own breathing and the voices of your crewmate and CapCom. It’s overwhelming to close your eyes and attempt to assemble all that in a daydream. First Man does it for you, which no Apollo film has quite achieved so movingly.
The best part is a lot of these scenes are in Armstrong’s first person point-of-view. We have all seen the iconic TV imagery of Neil coming down the ladder and gently placing his boot on the Moon, but we have never seen a realistic reenactment of the exact sights he was seeing. The same can be said of his ejection out of the LLTV. As Armstrong is shot upwards and his chute deploys, the audience sees two legs dangling beneath them, with a fireball down on the ground. In the tumultuous tumble of Gemini 8, the audience sees Earth spinning outside of Neil’s small, forward-facing window.
In the non-IMAX cut, when it’s harder for the audience to pretend they are there, the detail can be appreciated even greater. During the lunar descent, you see the 1202 alarm appear on the DSKY, hear the original audio of Charlie Duke speaking to Eagle, and watch Armstrong report, from within the spacecraft, “Tranquility Base, here. The Eagle has landed.” Then, the audience gets to experience the depressurization and opening of the hatch to the vacuum outside. I was oddly thrilled that the Apollo 11 sequence did not show Mission Control or the scientific experiments of the EVA in favor of showing us what Armstrong was experiencing himself. Usually, in other films or documentaries, these moments are accompanied by inspiring orchestral music and exultant commentary. In First Man, it is simply shown in the silence of Eagle’s cabin and Armstrong’s spacesuit. In the theater, you could hear a pin drop. No one wanted to ruin the silence. That insulating, still, and fuzzy silence of those lunar surface scenes creates the otherworldliness, the isolation, the “magnificent desolation” (quote, Buzz Aldrin) of standing on the face of another world.
The sound engineering is positively unorthodox. There are periods of racketing noise followed by pure silence, and then back to racketing noise. There are times when this is exaggerated, for instance, the TLI (Trans-Lunar Injection) phase. The actual S-IVB stage created almost no noise or shaking in the crew cabin. Apollo astronauts, Armstrong included, related that only the first segment of a Saturn V launch (the monstrous S-IC stage) was louder or shakier than other rockets. This is made up for, however, by showing the launches largely in real time. One of my pet peeves is showing launches, particularly those of the Saturn V, in slow motion. In First Man, we get to see the real acceleration of the rocket.
In a similar fashion, the angle of the camera shots in the two launch scenes were conceived according to real flight profiles. Apollo launched in an “heads-down” orientation. The astronauts are upside-down, heads pointing towards the planet. In the film, as the Saturn V enters its pitch program to start heading over the Atlantic, the shot inside the spacecraft rotates upside-down. In real life, when the rockets hit orbit and cut the engines, the crew instantly goes from being pressed into their seats to freefall. In the film, engine cutoff is marked by the shot suddenly tilting right-side up.
There are a few times, though, when the cinematic license goes too far. For instance, during the Apollo 11 landing scene, Eagle’s velocity was not that fast so close to the lunar surface, and there is no reason for it to be so onscreen. The scene would have been just as dramatic with the actual approach speed and vector. The same can be said of the X-15 scene, which unnecessarily showed inaccurate clouds and weather to convey the speed of the vehicle, something X-15 pilot and consultant Joe Engle pointed out at the screening he attended. Another instance is the Gemini 8 scene. Filmmakers utilized a Shepard tone, a known device used by directors to create anxiety, and tried to pass it off as the sound of the Gemini spacecraft spinning faster and faster. In reality, the spacecraft made no noise during the spin. Armstrong notes in Hansen that one of the reasons the stuck thruster went unnoticed at first is because it made no sound once fired.
While on the topic of inaccuracies, I’d like to make clear that there are instances where it had to be done to make events concise. For example, when Armstrong reports for his NASA interview, he is asked if Karen’s death would affect his performance. At that time, NASA did not actually know that Neil had lost a child. In fact, many at NASA never found out that he even had a daughter until years later. Another case: though Public Affairs Officer Paul Haney (played by Mark Armstrong) did cut the feed to Janet Armstrong’s squawk box when Gemini 8 was in trouble, she did not actually enter the Mission Control building. Rather, she chastised Deke Slayton for the incident later on; but her words were, in fact, along the lines of what is presented onscreen. The scene where Armstrong receives a phone call about Apollo 1 at the White House and accidentally breaks a glass did not happen. The astronauts present at the White House function that evening actually learned of Apollo 1 when they returned to their hotel. They were, though, instructed not to leave the hotel until the press fanfare subsided, just like what happens in the film. When it comes to crew selection, Armstrong did not find out he would command Apollo 11 from Deke Slayton on a whim. Slayton’s crew rotation pattern was well-known in the astronaut office. Armstrong knew he would probably command Apollo 11 when he found out he was the backup commander of Apollo 8 the year before. Though it was not set in stone, if Apollos 8, 9, and 10 were successful, 11 would logically be the first to attempt a landing. For an overall example of exaggeration for cinematic sake, Al Worden of Apollo 15 said in an interview that Armstrong was not quite as “aloof” as depicted onscreen. However, Gosling’s performance does make the audience understand what Neil was like, according to his sons Rick and Mark.
These are minor details that were necessary to stop the film from becoming a miniseries, and in no way are these harsh criticisms. I merely want to show that there are indeed inaccuracies, as there are bound to be in an Hollywood production. Though accurate, it is still historical fiction, and by nature can not be precise.
There are, however, just as many obscure and unnecessary details that the film did spot on. We briefly see Chuck Yeager criticize Armstrong’s X-15 flight, which represents Yeager’s actual criticism of Armstrong’s piloting ability. Pad technicians really were strapping Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott into their Gemini spacecraft when the Agena launched just two pads over. The close-out crew is shown to remove FOD (foreign object damage) from one of Gemini 8’s seatbelt buckles with a pen-knife, as they really did. If you listen hard enough, you can hear the Titan-II rocket’s trademark “fwoop!” sound at ignition. Actual mission dialogue and quotes from Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 are uttered by the actors in real time, reenacting history. To show the depth of my space nerdiness: I timed the length of Gemini 8’s spin. From the mission transcripts, the amount of time between Scott’s “We have serious problems here” and his “We’re regaining control” calls to the ground is 2:50 min/sec. In the film, it is - you guessed it - 2:50 min/sec! I hardly believe this is coincidence. In the same scene, the roll-rate indicator climbs upwards of 360º per second (i.e. one revolution per second, which actually happened).
A few more of my favorites:
In the beginning of the film, Armstrong is on the phone with someone named “Jack” speaking of Karen’s condition, and says to “give my love to June.” This refers to Neil’s sister June and brother-in-law Dr. Jack Hoffman, who really did help Neil navigate Karen’s treatment.
While Armstrong, Elliott See, and Ed White are talking about Gemini 4, White says that the hardest part of his spacewalk will be getting back in - something the real Ed White almost had to be ordered to do. Armstrong then says if he didn’t come back in, McDivitt would “cut the cord.” This refers to the actual order commander Jim McDivitt was given - if something went wrong and it became impossible to retrieve Ed White from outside the spacecraft, the official order was to come back without his remains (macabre, I know, yet still accurate). After the Gemini 5 backup crew, Armstrong and See, close-out the spacecraft before launch, one of them smarts: “It sure will be quieter around here.” This is a clever and underscored reference to the outgoing, boisterous personalities of the Gemini 5 crew: Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad. During Gemini 8, the Gemini computer’s lack of complexity is indirectly explained by showing Armstrong calculate his orbital mechanics manually using charts and mathematics.
Filmmakers reconstructed the plastic, rectangular tarp surrounding the Apollo 11 crew during their pre-flight press conference in quarantine, even piping a constant air-flow through the chamber to reenact how it was done in reality (blowing air towards the audience kept airborne viruses away from the crew). Michael Collins carries a brown paper bag with him while departing crew quarters, which held the traditional gift for pad leader Günter Wendt, who is depicted wearing his yellow cap and horn-rimmed glasses in Pad 39-A’s white room. While the astronauts walk across the gantry into the white room, the Mobile Service Structure is depicted at its parking-spot towards the VAB, even though the shot is perhaps just a second long. The orientation of the swing-arm and rocket on the pad is correct. Michael Collins’ concerns about Lunar-Orbit Rendezvous are shown when he says to Armstrong: “Come back, will you?” They even show the 180º yaw maneuver the LM (Lunar Module) performed during powered descent, in which it spun around to face upwards. Everything is in place, down to the gap in Pete Conrad’s two front teeth.
The best part? None of this remarkable attention to detail is necessary to tell the story of Neil Armstrong. Unless you are a true space buff who will see the film multiple times, you may not even notice them. Josh Singer, Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, the team of knowledgeable consultants - they all had spaceflight enthusiasts in mind during the whole production.
Most importantly, though, I believe they wanted to honor Neil Armstrong himself. These are the kind of details that Armstrong would have noticed. They are the technicalities that, according to his son Mark, would “ruin” a film for him if they were incorrect. If Armstrong were still with us, sitting in the theater at the premiere, these details would be necessary to get his seal of approval.
Speaking of the first man himself, there is another aspect to this film - one which I have been using to explain why people should see it. First Man is actually two films in one. There is a film about Neil Armstrong’s experiences at NASA, including his spaceflights; and there is another film about Neil Armstrong himself. Somehow, the filmmakers were able to show what it was like for Neil Armstrong to fly in space, as well as what it was like to be Neil Armstrong. I was not prepared for the power of his personal story as it is shown onscreen. Each of these two films in one is designed to complement the impact of the other. They have a symbiotic relationship that shows the audience who Armstrong was and what his experiences were, rather than simply tell it, as many previous films and documentaries have done. All space enthusiasts have asked the deceptively simple question: “What was it like?” Well, this is what it was like.
For the first time, I was made to find the concept of spaceflight both awesome (in the true sense of the word) and scary simultaneously, not just one or the other. It is depicted more ominously than usual using stark contrast, lighting, and top-tier sound engineering. All of these created an uncommon isolation from planet Earth, and rightfully so. The lunar orbit scenes are tantalizing, particularly that first lunar sunrise silently appearing out the window as it did in the real life flight trajectory. The Moon has never been depicted onscreen with such accuracy, in such a “foreboding” way (quote, Michael Collins). As Collins maneuvers the Apollo stack into the correct attitude and the LM undocks, Gosling’s delivery of Armstrong’s actual words, followed by a close up of his determined eyes, literally sends shivers down my spine, and makes it real: “The Eagle has wings.”
Finally, though I have written at length about the various technicalities of the production, don’t forget to look out for the artistic devices and symbolism. The final scene “between” Armstrong and his wife, for instance, when they are separated by a plane of glass. The piece of jewelry that is with him during arguably the most important event of his life. The theremin music that plays softly in the background at each moment Neil is thinking of a certain person; and also when he cannot face saying goodbye to his other children before Apollo 11. Discovering these little gems is what makes art special.
As you may gather, I could write all day about this. At the moment, I’m planning my third viewing. As stated in my prior article First Man: The Panel, I was initially skeptical of an Hollywood production of this nature. The panel helped alleviate my concerns about the process itself, but not the final product. Ultimately, the final product is deeply impressive, and has a positive lasting impression.
In conclusion, as a budding little space historian, it absolutely has my seal of approval. Just like the academic process, it fills a gap in the “discourse” of big-screen space productions. It’s no Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, or Hidden Figures. It is First Man.
Special thanks and congratulations to everyone involved in the film, especially my friends and colleagues. It’s strange to see so many familiar names in the credits. I hope you win big for your involvement in this iconic film.
Images and Videos Courtesy of the Author, except where noted otherwise
Cover image - Tranquility Base depicted onscreen (Photo: Dreamworks/Universal)
For your viewing pleasure, the real Neil Armstrong in two different settings:
Duke, Charlie, and Dotty Duke. Moonwalker. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1990.
First Man. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Screenplay by Josh Singer. By James R. Hansen.
Performed by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. United States: Universal Pictures, 2018. Film.
Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,
Irwin, James B., and William A. Emerson. To Rule the Night. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers,
Pearlman, Robert, Mark Armstrong, Rick Armstrong, Chris Calle, James Hansen, Rick Houston,
Ryan Nagata, Josh Singer, and Alfred Worden. "First Man." Panel, Spacefest IX, JW Marriott
Starr Pass, Tucson, AZ, July 7, 2018.