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What First Man Got Right About Neil Armstrong

Posted on Fri, October 12, 2018
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Warning: This blog post is a review and analysis of the movie First Man and contains spoilers for the film.

I recently had the privilege of seeing an advance screening of the new movie about Neil Armstrong, First Man. It is almost certainly is the most accurate fictional depiction of human spaceflight in the 1960s ever made. The care of the director, Damien Chazelle, and his team to respect the integrity of historical events is obvious to anyone with a solid knowledge of the Gemini and Apollo programs. That was in significant part due to the involvement of James R. Hansen of Auburn University, who wrote the biography on which the movie is based, as well as other space history experts. First Man does take a few liberties with the facts, but they are mostly done to make the events of the program more comprehensible to the non-expert, or to advance the film’s interpretation of Armstrong’s character.

Although the book covers Armstrong’s full life, the movie for quite practical reasons treats only 1961 to 1969. First Man opens with one of Armstrong’s flights in the X-15 rocket plane, one in which he got into some trouble because (the film seems to suggest) he was distracted by the cancer of his daughter, Karen, who would die at the age of 2 not long afterward. It then takes us through becoming a NASA astronaut and a series of accidents and near-fatal incidents that highlighted how dangerous it was to be in the program at that point.

Apollo 11 Mission image - Neil A. Armstrong inside the Lunar Module after E

Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 Commander inside the Lunar Module LM as it rests on the lunar surface after completion of the Extravehicular Activities EVA. Original film magazine was labeled R. Film Type: Ektachrome EF SO 168 Color on a 2.5 mil Estar polyester base,taken with an 80mm lens. Sun angle is Low.

The prime crew for Gemini IX, led by Armstrong’s friend Elliott See, was killed in a plane crash in early 1966, shortly before Armstrong commanded Gemini VIII. That mission became the first American human spaceflight to be forced into an emergency landing. He and his co-pilot, David Scott, had just executed the world’s first docking with another space vehicle when a thruster on Gemini VIII stuck open. Their spacecraft went into wild gyrations, forcing an undocking from the Agena rocket, and then into a violent roll that threatened to kill them. Thanks to Armstrong’s astonishing coolness under pressure, even as the spin threatened to make them black out, he told Scott to turn off all the regular thrusters and then used the reentry ones to stop the roll. That invoked a mission rule that required them to land quickly.

The director and his actors only had two hours to cover eight years, and that narrow focus was a way to make the movie compelling and coherent.

Less than a year later, on January 27, 1967, the first crew that was to fly an Apollo mission died in a fire during a spacecraft ground test at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Among those killed were Armstrong’s friend and next-door neighbor, Ed White, the first American to walk in space. Two years later, while practicing for Apollo 11, Armstrong had to eject from a Lunar Landing Training Vehicle that was going out of control. It speaks to the director’s attention to accuracy that he had a full-scale replica of the strange, spider-like vehicle built and then deliberately crashed it to film the scene. First Man ends with Apollo 11, emphasizing the tense, alarm-interrupted landing and some of Armstrong’s private moments on the Moon.

The toll of this period on Armstrong’s relationship with his wife Janet is the movie’s central thread. He is played by Ryan Gosling and she by Claire Foy and they expertly act out how the stress, and Armstrong’s reaction to it—becoming ever more tight-lipped and withdrawn—drives a wedge between them. And the movie doesn’t even depict another near-disaster: in the middle of 1966, the Armstrongs were forced to flee to the Whites in the middle of the night because their house began to burn. I was waiting for that scene, but if they filmed it, Chazelle decided to leave it out, presumably because there were enough negative events already in the final cut.

Apollo 11 Crew

Apollo 11 crew -- Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin.

In fact, the deliberate artistic choice to focus intensively on Armstrong’s experience and the effects on him and his wife tends to make most other characters marginal. Only Ed White and chief astronaut Deke Slayton emerge as somewhat fleshed-out characters. Buzz Aldrin appears mostly only in the Apollo 11 scenes and command module pilot Mike Collins, who stayed in orbit around the Moon, barely appears and is only mentioned a couple of times. This may offend some who want a fuller treatment of that mission, but the director and his actors only had two hours to cover eight years, and that narrow focus was a way to make the movie compelling and coherent.

The most noticeable alterations of historical facts were, for me at least, the origins of Gemini VIII’s first space docking, and the scenes of the Apollo 11 lunar landing and Moon walk. Armstrong was the backup commander of Gemini V (his co-pilot was Elliott See) and someone tells him that he will be the commander of VIII, which will probably be the first docking mission. That leaves out the complicated story of Gemini VI and VII. On October 25, 1965, Gemini VI’s Agena failed to get into orbit, which led to a historic December 15 rendezvous of the two Gemini spacecraft instead. But explaining all that in First Man would have been confusing and time-consuming.

The Apollo 11 landing scenes heighten the stress of the computer alarms during the descent by including fictional audio warnings, and the crater and boulder field that Armstrong had to fly over to land are much deeper and more dramatic than they were in reality. During the Moon walk, Armstrong leaves behind a memento of his daughter Karen on the lunar surface, something Ryan Gosling apparently wanted to do to humanize the character. There is no historical evidence that this happened, although it cannot be ruled out. But Neil Armstrong was such a straight arrow about what he took to the Moon and so buttoned-up within himself that this gesture seems unlikely. His ex-wife Janet (who divorced him much later) says that he probably did not even take anything onboard for their two sons.

President Nixon Visits Apollo 11 Crew in Quarantine

President Richard M. Nixon was in the central Pacific recovery area to welcome the Apollo 11 astronauts aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, prime recovery ship for the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. Already confined to the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) are (left to right) Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. Credit: NASA GRIN #GPN-2001-000007

 In attention to historical accuracy, First Man compares favorably to Apollo 13 (1995), Ron Howard’s well-known film about the lunar-landing mission that failed. That movie also made massive and expensive efforts to duplicate spacecraft cockpits, simulators, and launches. Several liberties and simplifications in Apollo 13 are taken for the sake of the plot, like having the Saturn V rocket roll out to the launch pad only a couple days before liftoff and exaggerating the gyrations of the spacecraft during the oxygen-tank explosion and subsequent maneuvers. In contrast, the undeniably entertaining and inspiring Hidden Figures (2016) distorted the facts of America’s original human spaceflight program, Mercury, in ways that were often unnecessary. One example is perpetuating the myth that John Glenn’s first American orbital mission in February 1962 was cut short by spacecraft problems—a story that is also in the original Mercury movie, The Right Stuff (1983), based on the Tom Wolfe book. Both had screenwriters and directors who were willing to throw historical accuracy aside to make an entertaining movie.

In sum, First Man is entertaining, compelling, and like Apollo 13, quite scrupulous in its attention to the facts of US human spaceflight in the 1960s. I highly recommend it.

Michael J. Neufeld is a senior curator in the Space History Department of the National Air and Space Museum. He is the lead curator for Destination Moon, a new exhibition to open at our Museum in Washington DC in 2022, and for Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission, a travelling exhibit featuring the command module Columbia.