I was born the year the United States first landed on the Moon. I’ve grown up with those images and with a respect—bordering on reverence—for astronauts in general. NASA has been a source of innovation and a beacon of inspiration for decades. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions, I appreciate movies like “Hidden Figures” and “First Man” that provide a more in-depth look at what really happened, and at the lives and personal stories behind the missions. “First Man” goes out of its way to get the technical details right, and also to share the triumphs and struggles of the people involved.
The studio recently invited journalists down to the Kennedy Space Center for the “First Man” movie junket. Paige Bradley made the journey and had the opportunity to see an early screening of the movie, tour Kennedy Space center, and sit down with the producers, directors, consultants, and actors involved with the movie.
Ryan Gosling plays the role of Neil Armstrong. He said that he actually knew very little about the story of the Moon landing or about Neil Armstrong when he was first approached about the project. Then he read First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by Jim Hansen—the book that the movie is based off of. Gosling shared, “When I got Jim’s books, I was just overwhelmed by how little I knew—how extraordinary the story really was.”
Gosling also said that he was inspired by the fact that the personal stories of Neil and Janet—his wife during the Apollo missions—and their family were the guiding stars for the project. That sentiment was noticed by Rick and Mark Armstrong when they met with Ryan as well. The two sons of Neil Armstrong had dinner with Ryan at a restaurant in Santa Monica early on in the process. They shared how impressed they were by the questions he asked. However, they were even more impressed that his questions evolved and became more insightful as the conversation went on. They said it was clear that Ryan wanted to get the story right. Ryan would not have taken the project without the approval of Rick and Mark.
Mark said that watching the movie had a big emotional impact on him. The performances of Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as his parents are very good. He explained that when it all comes together—with the sound and the score—the result is amazing. Rick agreed and said that Claire’s performance as his mother is spot on.
Rick and Mark were also asked the crucial question: “If Neil Armstrong was alive today, would he like this movie?” They noted that the thing he most cared about when watching movies and documentaries about the Apollo missions was the technical accuracy—things like whether they had the right wheels for a particular vehicle, or if a person is wearing a watch that wasn’t available at the time. According to his sons, as long as a movie gets the technical points right, Neil would understand the artistic license of the story around it. They shared that they believe Neil would appreciate the amount of effort that was taken to make sure “First Man” is technically correct.
That is—at least partially—where Bill Barry comes in. Barry is Chief Historian of NASA and helped guide the project to make sure they got the details right. When it comes to the reality of NASA and the space program during the 1960’s, he feels “First Man” does a good job of conveying those details.
Barry talked about the perception that NASA had unlimited budget, and unlimited resources, and unlimited support and pointed out that none of that is actually true. He said during a panel session that the movie reminds people that public support for the space program was never very big. He noted that it was generally below 50 percent, and only spiked above 50 percent very briefly around the time of the initial Moon landing. Up until 1966, NASA had a budget that amounted to about 4 percent of the federal budget, but that dropped dramatically after 1966 and was significantly smaller by the time of the Apollo missions.
He also noted that the astronauts themselves were seen as almost super-human. They were flawless. Their families were perfect. All of that was just the marketing hype spun about them, though. The reality was that the astronauts were all under a tremendous amount of stress. Many paid a high price in lost friendships and broken marriages.
In the end, Barry admits this is a movie, not a documentary. There are certainly parts that are more dramatic or areas where some artistic license is taken. He explained, though, that the advantage of a movie like this is that it at least opens up the conversation. People will ask, “How accurate is the movie?” and that provides an opportunity to talk about the difference between the movie and what actually happened. In the end, it drives interest and curiosity about the Apollo missions—and that is a good thing.
How is the movie itself? Paige said the movie is fantastic, and she recommends that everyone see it. I am a huge NASA geek myself and one of my favorite movies growing up was “The Right Stuff.” I am looking forward to seeing “First Man”—especially since it has the seal of approval of Neil Armstrong’s surviving sons and the Chief Historian of NASA.