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Will ‘First Man’ Be a Definitive Cinematic Look at Neil Armstrong?

The first footage from Damien Chazelle’s biopic recalls a ‘Whiplash’-level intensity and sports some clear ideas about the astronaut’s heroism.
First Man Ryan Gosling
By  · Published on June 11th, 2018

The first footage from Damien Chazelle’s biopic recalls a ‘Whiplash’-level intensity and sports some clear ideas about the iconic astronaut’s heroism.

There are a good number of movie and TV depictions of NASA’s Apollo program, the series of human spaceflight missions which sought to put Americans on the moon between the late 1960s and early 1970s. They include Ron Howard’s big and small screen tributes, several documentaries, a handful of comedies (including one about a fly with a dream of going to the moon), Transformers and Men in Black sequels, and even some anti-moon landing conspiracy films. Overall, this particular sliver of real-life space exploration has been both revered and dismissed over the years.

Of course, Neil Armstrong — the first person to walk on the moon — has appeared as a character in some of these productions throughout the Apollo program film canon. Tony Goldwyn in Howard’s miniseries From Earth to the Moon, Jeffrey Nordling in the docudrama Apollo 11, and Daniel Lapaine in the TV movie Moonshot are notable examples, although these performances tend to function as smaller parts in service of larger stories. But with Damien Chazelle‘s First Man perhaps we expect something different.

Whether due to the power of Armstrong’s legacy or a concerted effort on the part of filmmakers to fictionalize and further immortalize that moment of the first moon landing, the trailer for First Man certainly appears like a very modern and Hollywood vision of a specific time in history. Not to the extent of depicting Apollo 11 as a mission to stop some Decepticons, of course, but everything about First Man feels like a top-notch space exploration thriller, regardless of the real story behind it. Watch the trailer below.

First Man focuses on Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) during his involvement in NASA’s space program in the years leading up to Apollo 11. The film will include a riveting look into how the program affected Armstrong and his family, as well as the United States at large due to the politicized nature of the mission. The trailer treats us to several scenes of anxious preparation and test flights. Moreover, it provides a closer look into Armstrong’s home life as well (these scenes, in particular, will undoubtedly be bolstered by a powerhouse performance from Claire Foy).

First Man was once pitched as a Clint Eastwood directorial vehicle back in 2003 at Warner Bros. after the studio bought the film rights to James R. Hansen’s eponymous Armstrong biography. After being stuck in development hell for over a decade, First Man landed at Universal and DreamWorks in the mid-2010s.

Upon seeing the film’s first footage, I’m extremely glad that Chazelle is now the one to translate the frenetic urgency of Apollo 11 to the big screen. He’s just wonderful with thrillers. As lovely as La La Land is, I’ve always been a bigger fan of Whiplash, basically a heart attack in movie form. Close-ups of Miles Teller’s hands, bleeding as he frantically drums to the beat of J.K. Simmons’ commands, cause unforgettable visceral reactions.

There is something inexplicably suffocating about First Man too. Despite essentially already knowing the film’s ending, the stakes feel larger than life. Tight shots of closed quarters — be it on an actual spacecraft or in a press conference or in Armstrong’s own home — create a familiarly jarring and smothering effect.

According to Chazelle, that’s exactly what we’re meant to feel anyway. Per IndieWire, First Man screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) revealed:

“Damien had a very clear vision from the outset. He said, ‘Can we get across how challenging this was? Can we get across the visceral nature of this?’ The space program has been depicted, tonally, on the softer side in the past.

“Damien said, ‘I want to be terrified the entire time.’ It’s one of the earliest things we talked about. Neil’s heroism isn’t because he landed on the moon, it’s because he had the wherewithal to live through it all.”

Evidently, Chazelle’s goal is to get audiences at the edge of their seats in anticipation, invested in both the mission and its characters (“This is 100 percent a mission movie,” says Singer). This certainly makes me wonder if First Man will take many liberties for its hair-raising qualities, despite the fact that the film is based on an authorized biography.

If it does, that may not be a reason to write off the film just yet. When characterizing First Man from a point of reference, the film could perhaps, to some degree, resemble David Fincher’s The Social Network (a film that Whiplash also coincidentally shares a similarly yellow color palette with). Based off of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal,” The Social Network is definitely more drama than biography. Nevertheless, it delivers an incisive look into the drive and motivation of a fictional Mark Zuckerberg — someone who is a self-serving genius but ultimately unknowable. Hair-raising The Social Network is not, but it is uncannily unnerving due to its dogged portrayal of a public figure.

Sure, Gosling doesn’t look very much like the legendary spaceman in First Man. The film also features well-known talent such as Foy, Kyle Chandler, and Corey Stoll, whose familiar faces only reinforce the purely fictional nature of the narrative. Yet, we would probably still learn something worthwhile about the tenacity of a man like Armstrong regardless. Chazelle does need to treat his subject with enough subtlety and modulation, but judging from his past onscreen endeavors, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Across their multiple portrayals, moon landings have never been enshrined in such a direct and exhilarating way. This is where First Man could be a definitive cinematic look at Armstrong. And if it turns out to just be a rollicking good time, that wouldn’t be so bad either.

First Man hits theaters on October 12th.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)