‘First Man’: Mis­sion to un­der­stand Arm­strong

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Hal Boedeker

The film “First Man” un­der­takes a tricky mis­sion: pro­fil­ing Neil Arm­strong, the first hu­man to step on the moon. He is one of the most fa­mous peo­ple in his­tory and some­one of­ten seen as in­scrutable.

To help un­der­stand Arm­strong, the film open­ing Fri­day puts the au­di­ence in the pi­lot’s seat with him. With vis­ceral force, “First Man” re-cre­ates scenes of Arm­strong as an X-15 pi­lot in 1961, as com­mand pi­lot of Gemini VIII in 1966 and as com­man­der of the

Apollo 11 mis­sion.

Apollo 11 launched from Kennedy Space Cen­ter in 1969, and “First Man” filmed there in Fe­bru­ary. Film­mak­ers (in­clud­ing Ryan Gosling, who plays the ti­tle char­ac­ter) re­cently re­turned with Arm­strong’s sons to dis­cuss a movie that’s a re­minder of NASA’s im­por­tance to the re­gion.

Os­car-win­ning di­rec­tor Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) said he came away with greater re­spect and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for NASA, the as­tro­nauts and their fam­i­lies.

“It helps you re­al­ize how much they put on the line. It wasn’t just a job,” Chazelle said. “My hope would be that this movie helps shine some light on the ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­tent of that sac­ri­fice.”

Part of that chal­lenge was to give the au­di­ence an idea of what Arm­strong was feel­ing on mis­sions, such as the first lu­nar land­ing, in scenes staged with you-arethere in­ten­sity.

“I think it’s part of why we leaned into the semi­doc­u­men­tary style that we used,” Chazelle said. “I was in­spired by the ac­tual, au­then­tic archival footage of NASA at that time, es­pe­cially

a lot of footage the as­tro­nauts took them­selves.”

Chazelle mar­veled at “the com­ing-to­gether of peo­ple against all odds to turn a far-fetched dream of go­ing to the moon into a re­al­ity, and they did it de­spite al­most in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles.”

The film is based on “First Man,” au­thor James Hansen’s bi­og­ra­phy of Arm­strong, who died at 82 in 2012.

“Neil al­ways em­pha­sized that the Apollo as­tro­nauts got too much of the credit. They were just the top of the pyra­mid,” Hansen said. “To have a movie that fo­cuses just on him, I’m not sure he would ever go to it. He’d be em­bar­rassed by the fact that it’s out there.”

Yet the film ar­rives at NASA’s 60th an­niver­sary and re­counts a space-pro­gram peak in per­sonal terms. The movie takes an in­ti­mate look at the home life of Arm­strong; his first wife, Janet (Claire Foy); and their chil­dren.

“He’s fa­mously sort of re­mote, and some peo­ple felt un­know­able,” Gosling said. “He, by all accounts, was not a very emo­tional per­son.”

So the movie presents pri­vate scenes, such as Arm­strong griev­ing for his daugh­ter, Karen, who bat­tled

brain can­cer and died at 2. The film tells the story from Arm­strong’s point of view to help the au­di­ence try to know him, Gosling said.

Arm­strong’s sons, Rick and Mark, shared fam­ily sto­ries with film­mak­ers to flesh out the por­trait of their father.

“He has been mis­char­ac­ter­ized for a long time. He’s been called reclu­sive,” Mark Arm­strong said. “He had a great sense of hu­mor. He was fun-lov­ing. He loved mu­sic.”

Rick Arm­strong said his dad was a reg­u­lar guy who had a lot of friends, trav­eled widely and gave many speeches, but “he felt no re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep the me­dia in­formed about what he was do­ing.”

The sons see their mother (played by Emmy win­ner Foy of “The Crown”) as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for as­tro­naut fam­i­lies. “Mom is a proxy for all the wives at that time. They had all of the worry and none of the con­trol,” Mark Arm­strong said.

Bill Barry, NASA’s chief his­to­rian, said “First Man” presents a side of the story that had never been told. “There was a cost,” he said. “It hu­man­izes what hap­pened, makes clear to peo­ple the risks in space ex­plo­ration

we don’t think about.” The movie also de­picts the Apollo 1 fire in 1967 that killed three as­tro­nauts, in­clud­ing Arm­strong’s good friend Ed White.

Janet and Neil Arm­strong di­vorced in 1994 af­ter 38 years of mar­riage. She died in June at 84.

The sons un­der­stood the chal­lenges fac­ing Gosling. “Dad’s not an easy guy to play,” Mark Arm­strong said. “He has an in­ten­sity to him. He’s a quiet guy. He doesn’t say much.”

Chazelle said he didn’t re­al­ize the loss that Neil Arm­strong had en­dured. “There was a real tragic side to his life,” he said. “Per­haps that tragedy fu­eled him. Some peo­ple would have just crum­pled into a cor­ner when faced with the or­deals Neil went through.”

Neil Arm­strong lost friends in the Korean War, as a test pi­lot and in the space pro­gram. Yet he car­ried a ca­ma­raderie that was a source of re­silience, Mark Arm­strong said.

He added: “The film sets the record straight on who he was and lets peo­ple get to know the real per­son.”


Ryan Gosling as Neil Arm­strong in “First Man.”

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