'First Man' stars on presenting another side of Neil Armstrong
'Why I love the film is because it shows the reality of the situation rather than the dream that people want to believe in,' says Claire Foy
Everyone knows that American astronaut Neil Armstrong was the first man on the Moon, but how many of us know much about the man himself?
That’s all about to change with the landing of First Man, the new film from Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle.
Based on the book First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong by James R Hansen and starring Ryan Gosling as the world’s most famous astronaut, as well as The Crown star Claire Foy as his wife Janet, the film explores the triumphs and costs of sending a man to the Moon. It also shows Armstrong to be an introspective man of few words who had to overcome a great personal tragedy.
“In some ways, I’ve always been interested in people who have had a hard time communicating in the ‘normal way’,” says Chazelle, whose film is the latest in a line of his movies exploring the cost and sacrifice that comes with attempting to be at the apex of a profession, whether it be a drummer, jazz pianist or, in this case, an astronaut.
“With any real history-making achievement, sometimes we like to, almost wilfully, forget how costly these achievements can be,” the director explains. “What was interesting to me about Neil was that while he was ambitious he thought of himself as doing a job, a job that came from his childhood love of planes, which extended into spacecrafts, whereas the ambitious characters I’d filmed before, wanted to be great or famous.”
It was also a job full of danger. The film spans the years from 1961 to 1969, and has a strong focus on Armstrong and his relationship with his wife, as well as the human sacrifice and many deaths and setbacks that were part of the American Moon mission. At the time, test pilots would die with alarming frequency, and the portrayal of that in the movie means it has an almost Game of Thrones episode quality.
In the film, the Armstrongs spend a fair amount of time at the funerals of his colleagues. “Once I started digging, I grew astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the enterprise – the number of times it circled failure, as well as the toll it took on all involved,” Chazelle says.
The filmmaking team went to great lengths to make the action on screen as authentic as possible. “I’ve never had more help on a film or more access to research material,” says Gosling, speaking at last month’s San Sebastian Film Festival. “First of all, Hansen’s book was a very helpful tool and we also had access to his family and sons, as well as the late Janet Armstrong, who unfortunately passed recently, in addition to the friends and co-workers of Neil.”
Gosling, who worked with Chazelle on La La Land, says he didn’t want to mimic Armstrong per se, but did want to bring the essence of the astronaut onto the screen. “Neil was a very layered person and to a lot of people who were with him, he seemed remote, and it was important that we found a way to peel back some of the layers and show the extraordinary and admirable qualities so we see the man behind the myth.”
It was this demystifying quality of First Man that captured the heart of Foy, who delivers an impactful performance first as homemaker wife and then as a grief-stricken mother when their young daughter dies. “During the decade or so of this space race, there was the idea of the projected image that everyone wanted to be,” says Foy. “You were man and wife, and had a perfect house and no one is depressed. Why I love the film is because it shows the reality of the situation rather than the dream that people want to believe in.
“I felt like to tell the story of Neil Armstrong, the person who ended up doing this extraordinary thing, you can’t ignore the loved one and you could argue that for so many reasons Neil Armstrong was a survivor, he wasn’t meant to be the first man on the Moon. There was a lot of luck and tragedy that got him there and I feel that Janet is integral to his life.”
First Man is also a technical accomplishment, with many scenes shot as if from Armstrong’s point of view. “It’s to Damien’s credit the way the mission scenes feel,” Gosling says. “He went above and beyond what most filmmakers would have done to capture a sequence. There were trips to Nasa for the actors, which were mind-blowing, and some of the dialogue used in those scenes is actual dialogue spoken by the astronauts. There was an extraordinary amount of research, as well as technicians on set who could tell you what it was like to go to the Moon.”
Then there is the “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” quote. Chazelle says: “This was one of several examples from Neil’s life where for someone who was famous for being a man of few words, the words he did speak were often so beautiful and so perfect that it seemed liked there was really the poet in him.”
First Man is in UAE cinemas from today
Updated: October 18, 2018 12:31 PM