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-are-there intensity.
“I think it’s part of why we leaned into the semi-documentary 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.”