First Man is a 2018 American biographical drama film directed by Damien Chazelle and written by Josh Singer. Based on the book 'First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong' by James R. Hansen, the film stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, alongside Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, and Lukas Haas, and follows the years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969. Steven Spielberg served as an executive producer.
In early 2003, actor-director Clint Eastwood and production members at Warner Bros. bought the film rights to James R. Hansen's 'First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong'. Eastwood had previously directed as well as starred in the 2000 space-themed picture Space Cowboys, though he stated that he would likely not appear on camera in First Man.
Universal and DreamWorks ultimately took up the First Man project
in the mid-2010s. Damien Chazelle, who had received critical acclaim for
his work in 2014 on Whiplash, signed onto the film's production
that year, and hired Josh Singer to rewrite an existing script. Gosling,
who starred in Chazelle's 2016 film La La Land, joined as well
to portray Armstrong in November 2015, and Hansen was hired to co-produce
the film because of his role as the book's author. Wyck Godfrey and Marty
Bowen also produced the film through Temple Hill Entertainment, with pre-production
starting in March 2017.. Actor Jon Bernthal was originally attached to
the project and was cast as David Scott, but had to depart the project’s
production when his daughter suffered a serious illness.
Principal photography began in Atlanta in November 2017. Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren chose to shoot the film in three different formats: 16mm, 35mm and IMAX 70mm film for the Moon sequence. The 16mm format was used in most of the scenes that occur inside the spacecraft, with 35mm film being used for the scenes that take place in the Armstrong house and around the NASA facility.
First Man was shot without the use of green screen. Instead, LED displays of up to 10 metres width were used, and these projected images would simulate the exterior of the spacecraft, both the earth and space. Next to the screens, several simulators were built, each corresponding to a spacecraft. These were programmed to move synchronized with the images of the spherical LED screens that could be seen through the windows. Chazelle chose this technique because it allowed the actors to get more into the role; instead of seeing a green screen, they saw the outside environment recreated with visual effects. Miniatures were used for several exterior shots of the spacecraft.
To recreate Armstrong's home, the production crew built a replica of
it on an empty lot. The lunar surface was recreated by building a set
on the Vulcan quarry in Atlanta. For the simulation of low gravity on
the lunar surface, a balancing system calibrated for the actors was constructed.
A single light source was used to simulate the light coming from the Sun.
NASA historian Christian Gelzer, as well as astronauts Al Bean and Al
Worden, were on set as technical consultants.
Paul Lambert served as the main visual effects supervisor. Visual effects for the film were provided by DNEG. To create the images that would be displayed on the LED screens, Terragen, a scenery generation program, was used. Additionally, archival footage such as that of an Apollo launch was used, found by DNEG in a 70mm military stock that had not been seen before. These shots were then cleaned up and extended on each side of the frame. Chazelle believed that it was important that the space scenes in the film matched what people knew from the historical footage, and using this footage itself made this possible.
The musical score for First Man was composed by Justin Hurwitz. The score was performed by a 94-piece orchestra, with instruments such as the electronic theremin and Moog synthesizer, as well as vintage sound-altering machines including Leslie speakers and an Echoplex.
Based primarily on the script from Josh Singer, Hurwitz began creating piano demos before principal photography began until he and Chazelle decided on one that would become the main theme. "It had to have a sense of loneliness but also beauty," said Hurwitz. "Like when he gets to the moon – you're on this barren surface; it's all very beautiful, but it's very, very lonely."
Chazelle liked the theremin's association with low-budget sci-fi pictures of the 1950s and early 1960s, because Armstrong and his NASA colleagues were, in their race to the Moon, "basically doing real-life science fiction," Chazelle said. "Those were the sounds and images we had in our minds of the moon, and space in general." "At its heart," said Chazelle, "this was a story about grief, about someone who lost a lot of people he loved, and what those losses did to him. There was something about the theremin that seemed to convey that grief that spanned across the cosmos. It obviously makes you think of space, but it also has those qualities of the human voice – a sort of wailing – that could feel very mournful to me." Hurwitz acquired a theremin and learned how to play it, and his performances are in the final score. "We wanted it to sound electronic but not harsh or abrasive," he said. "I've tried to make it, in most places, pretty mild, and to blend with the orchestra."
The score was praised by critics, especially for its balance of softer melodic passages and powerful themes.
The digital album was released through Back Lot Music on 12 October 2018
First Man had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on 29 August 2018. It screened at the Telluride Film Festival on 31 August, and at the Toronto International Film Festival on 9 September. It was theatrically released in the United States on 12 October by Universal Pictures.
First Man won numerous awards in 2019, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe and two Critic's Choice awards.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, First Man holds an approval rating of 87%, with an average rating of 8.05/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "First Man uses a personal focus to fuel a look back at a pivotal moment in human history – and takes audiences on a soaring dramatic journey along the way." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 84 out of 100, indicating "universal acclaim".
Owen Gleiberman of Variety called the film "so revelatory in its realism, so gritty in its physicality, that it becomes a drama of thrillingly hellbent danger and obsession." Writing for IndieWire, Michael Nordine described it as "A powerful experience that will inspire renewed awe of what Armstrong and his ilk did." Nordine praised the opening flight sequence, Gosling's performance and Chazelle's direction.
Peter Howell of the Toronto Star praised the Moon landing sequence, writing: "When the Eagle finally lands on the moon in First Man, the picture truly soars." Nicholas Barber of the BBC gave it a five-star rating, stating that "Gosling and Foy's performances in First Man are probably too unshowy to win awards. But they should, because they could hardly have been bettered. The same goes for the whole of this extraordinary film."
Buzz Aldrin salutes the US flag
Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the astronaut who became the first man
to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
Claire Foy as Janet Shearon Armstrong, Neil's first wife.
Jason Clarke as Ed White, Neil's friend and neighbour, the first American to walk in space, who died during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1, which was to be the first manned Apollo mission.
Kyle Chandler as Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, who became NASA's first Chief of the Astronaut Office.
Corey Stoll as Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
Gavin Warren as Rick Armstrong, son of Neil Armstrong and brother of Mark Armstrong.
Pablo Schreiber as Jim Lovell, Gemini astronaut and backup commander on Armstrong's Apollo 11 mission.
Christopher Abbott as David Scott, who flew with Armstrong on the Gemini 8 mission.
Patrick Fugit as Elliot See, a member of NASA Astronaut Group 2. Armstrong and See were the backup crew for Gemini 5, and both were later chosen for command assignments: Armstrong on Gemini 8, and See on Gemini 9. See was killed in 1966 when his NASA trainer jet crashed into the McDonnell Space Center in St. Louis, where he was training for that mission.
Lukas Haas as Michael Collins, the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 11, who also flew on Gemini 10.
Shea Whigham as Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. He was killed during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1, which was to be the first manned Apollo mission.
Brian d'Arcy James as Joseph A. Walker, Armstrong's fellow X-15 test pilot who became the seventh man in space by taking that plane into space twice.
Cory Michael Smith as Roger B. Chaffee, capsule communicator for the Gemini 3 and Gemini 4 missions, and the third crew member who was killed with Grissom and White in the Apollo 1 pre-launch test.
J. D. Evermore as Christopher C. Kraft Jr., NASA's first Flight Director, who was in charge of America's first manned spaceflight and first manned orbital flight, as well as the Gemini 4 mission.
John David Whalen as John Glenn, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts. He became the first American to orbit the Earth.
Ethan Embry as Pete Conrad, Pilot of Gemini 5 and backup commander for Gemini 8.
Skyler Bible as Richard F. Gordon Jr., the backup pilot for Gemini 8 and pilot of Gemini 11.
Ben Owen as John Hodge, the NASA Flight Director in charge of Gemini 8.
Olivia Hamilton as Patricia White, Ed's wife.
Kris Swanberg as Marilyn See, Elliot's wife.
Ciarán Hinds as Robert R. Gilruth, the first director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center.
Shawn Eric Jones as Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts and the ninth person to travel to space.
William Gregory Lee as Gordon Cooper, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, who piloted the longest and final Mercury spaceflight. He was commander of Gemini 5.
Steve Coulter as Günter Wendt, the launch pad leader who was in charge of the spacecraft close-out crews, at the launch pads for the Mercury and Gemini programs, and all manned Apollo missions.
Leon Bridges as Gil Scott-Heron, a singer and poet.