First Man (film)

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First Man
First Man (film).png
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDamien Chazelle
Produced by
Screenplay byJosh Singer
Based onFirst Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
by James R. Hansen
Starring
Music byJustin Hurwitz
CinematographyLinus Sandgren
Edited byTom Cross
Production
company
Distributed byUniversal Pictures[1]
Release date
  • August 29, 2018 (2018-08-29) (Venice)
  • October 12, 2018 (2018-10-12) (United States)
Running time
141 minutes[2]
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget
Box office$105.7 million[5]

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 serves as an executive producer.[6]

The project was originally announced in 2003, with Clint Eastwood slated to direct. After that rendition fell through, Chazelle, Gosling and Singer all signed on by 2015, and principal photography began in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 2017.

First Man had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on August 29, 2018, and was theatrically released in the United States on October 12, 2018, by Universal Pictures. The film received critical praise, particularly regarding the direction, Gosling and Foy's performances, musical score, and the Moon landing sequence, although its choice to not depict the planting of the U.S. flag on the lunar surface led critics and politicians from both major American political parties to debate the film's stance on patriotism.[7][8][9]

Despite its positive critical reception, notable cast and crew and $59 million production budget, the film was considered a commercial disappointment, grossing $105 million worldwide. It received numerous accolades, including two nominations at the 76th Golden Globe Awards (winning Best Original Score), ten nominations at the 24th Critics' Choice Awards (winning Best Editing and Best Score), seven nominations at the 72nd British Academy Film Awards, and four nominations at the 91st Academy Awards (winning Best Visual Effects).

Plot[edit]

In 1961, NASA test pilot Neil Armstrong is flying the X-15 rocket-powered spaceplane when it inadvertently bounces off the atmosphere. Although he manages to land the plane in the Mojave Desert, his colleagues express concern that his recent record of mishaps is due to distraction, and he is grounded.

His 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Karen, is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. Desperate to save her, Armstrong keeps a detailed log of her symptoms and feverishly tries to find possible treatments, but she dies soon afterwards. Grief-stricken, Armstrong applies for Project Gemini and is accepted to NASA Astronaut Group 2. Armstrong, his wife Janet, and their son Rick move to Houston alongside other astronaut families. Armstrong befriends Elliot See, another civilian test pilot, and Ed White. As Armstrong begins training, Deke Slayton impresses upon the new astronauts the importance of the Gemini program, as the Soviet Union had reached every milestone in the Space Race ahead of the United States. Armstrong and Janet have a second son, Mark.

By 1965, the family has settled in Houston, and Armstrong awaits selection for a crew. After the Soviets complete the first extravehicular activity (EVA), Armstrong is informed that he will be the commander of Gemini 8, with David Scott as the pilot. Prior to the mission, See and Charles Bassett are killed in a T-38 crash, deepening Armstrong's grief at the string of recent losses. Armstrong and Scott successfully launch on Gemini 8 and dock with the Agena target vehicle, but soon afterward, the spacecraft begins to roll at a rapid rate. After nearly blacking out, Armstrong activates the RCS thrusters and safely aborts the mission. Armstrong initially faces criticism, but NASA determines the crew is not at fault. Later, White reveals that he has been selected for the Apollo 1 mission, along with Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee.

During a launch rehearsal test on January 27, 1967, a fire kills White and the Apollo 1 crew, and Armstrong hears the news while representing NASA at the White House. The next year, after ejecting from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in an accident that could have killed him, Armstrong is selected to command Apollo 11, and Slayton informs him that it will likely be the first lunar landing. As the mission nears, Neil becomes increasingly preoccupied and emotionally distant from his family. Just prior to the launch, Janet confronts Armstrong about the possibility that he won't survive the flight and insists that he should explain the risks of the mission to their young sons. After telling them about the risks he faces, Armstrong says goodbye to his family and departs.

Apollo 11 successfully launches and arrives at the Moon four days later. Armstrong and Aldrin undock in the Lunar Module and begin the landing attempt. They realize that they are coming in too fast and are going to overshoot their designated landing site. The new landing site turns out to have much rougher terrain, forcing Armstrong to take manual control of the spacecraft. He lands the lunar module successfully with minimal fuel remaining. After setting foot on the Moon, Armstrong drops Karen's bracelet into Little West crater. With their mission complete, the astronauts return home and are placed in quarantine, where the film of John F. Kennedy's 1962 speech "We choose to go to the Moon" is shown, and Armstrong and Janet share a moment of tenderness.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

In early 2003, actor-director Clint Eastwood and production people at the Warner Bros. studio 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.[11]

Universal and DreamWorks ultimately took up the First Man project in the mid-2010s.[12] Damien Chazelle, who had received critical acclaim for his work on 2014's Whiplash, signed onto the film's production that year, and hired Josh Singer to rewrite an existing script.[13] 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.[14][15] Wyck Godfrey and Marty Bowen also produced the film through Temple Hill Entertainment, with pre-production starting in March 2017.[16][13] Actor Jon Bernthal was originally attached to the project and was cast as David Scott, but had to depart the production when his daughter suffered a serious illness.[17] PIX Systems were used to aid in the production of this film.[18]

Filming[edit]

Principal photography began in Atlanta, Georgia, in November 2017.[19] Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren chose to shoot the film in three different formats: Super 16mm, 35mm Techniscope & Super 35 3-perf, and IMAX 70mm film for the Moon sequence.[20] 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.[21]

First Man was shot without the use of green screen. Instead, LED displays of up to 10 meters were used. These projected images that 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.[22]

To recreate Armstrong's home, the production crew built a replica of it in an empty lot. The lunar surface was recreated by building a set on the Vulcan quarry in Atlanta.[22] Chazelle filmed these sequences at night, using a custom 200,000-watt light to duplicate the effect of sunlight on the surface.[23] For the simulation of low gravity on the lunar surface, a balancing system calibrated for the actors was constructed.[21] NASA historian Christian Gelzer, as well as astronauts Al Bean and Al Worden, were on set as technical consultants.[24]

Visual effects[edit]

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.[22] Chazelle believed that it was important that the space scenes in the film matched what people knew from the historical footage, and using the historical footage itself made this possible.[25]

Costumes[edit]

The high altitude suits used in the film were made by a prop maker named Ryan Nagata. His work in the film included the A/P22S-2 used in the X-15 scene in the beginning of the movie, the ejection seat harness on the Gemini suits, and the gloves used on the lunar Extra vehicular activity (EVA) scene along with the Communications carrier assembly ("Snoopy cap") and a urine collection device. The Gemini, Apollo One and Apollo A7L suits were made by Global Effects Inc. and were used throughout section of the movie devoted to Apollo 11.[26]

Soundtrack[edit]

First Man: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Soundtrack album by
ReleasedOctober 12, 2018 (2018-10-12)
GenreSoundtrack
Length1:07:57
LabelBack Lot Music
Justin Hurwitz chronology
La La Land
(2016)
First Man: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
(2018)

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.[27]

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 '50s and early '60s 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."[28]

Leon Bridges appears in the film as Gil Scott-Heron, reciting the Scott-Heron spoken-word poem "Whitey on the Moon". Chazelle felt it was important to underscore that one of the challenges at the time was the push back of citizens who did not agree with the expense, and the risk, of the space program.[29]

The score was praised by critics, especially for its balance of softer melodic passages and powerful themes.[30][31]

The digital album was released through Back Lot Music on October 12, 2018.

Release[edit]

The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on August 29, 2018.[32][33][34] It screened at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2018,[35][36] and at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2018.[37] It was theatrically released in the United States on October 12, 2018, by Universal Pictures.[38]

Reception[edit]

Box office[edit]

First Man grossed $44.9 million in the United States and Canada, and $60.7 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $105.6 million, against a production budget of $59 million.[5]

In the United States and Canada, First Man was released alongside Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween and Bad Times at the El Royale, and was projected to gross $18–25 million from 3,640 theaters in its opening weekend.[39][40] The film made $5.8 million on its first day, including $1.1 million from Thursday night previews at 2,850 theaters. It went on to debut to $16 million, finishing third at the box office behind holdovers Venom and A Star Is Born.[2] Anthony D'Alessandro of Deadline Hollywood stated that the under-performance was less a matter of any controversy involving the American flag and more to do with the 141 minute runtime and the film's focus on drama,[2] although Forbes speculated the backlash played a factor.[41] Michael Cieply, also of Deadline, acknowledged that the flag controversy drew Internet criticism and that it could have hurt the film's performance at the box office.[42] The film fell 47% in its second weekend, grossing $8.6 million and finishing fifth, and then made $4.9 million in its third week, finishing seventh.[43][44]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 87% based on 417 reviews, with an average rating of 8.04/10. 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."[45] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 84 out of 100, based on 56 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".[46] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it a 79% positive score.[2]

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."[47] Writing for IndieWire, Michael Nordine awarded the film a B+, describing 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.[48] 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."[49] 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."[50]

A. O. Scott, of The New York Times, wrote that the film "gets almost everything right, but it's also strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment – into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination – that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt."[51] Anthony Lane of The New Yorker said the film "captures the grandeur and otherness of the Apollo saga, but not the Midwestern modesty of its hero, Neil Armstrong," writing: "Skillful and compelling this film may be, but, if Neil Armstrong had been the sort of fellow who was likely to cry on the moon, he wouldn't have been the first man chosen to go there. He would have been the last."[52]

Richard Brody, also of The New Yorker, said First Man would appeal to right-wing proponents as "a film of deluded, cultish longing for an earlier era of American life, one defined not by conservative politics but, rather, by a narrow and regressive emotional perspective that shapes and distorts the substance of the film."[53] Armond White of the National Review gave the film a negative review, writing: "...director Damien Chazelle aims to give a realistic, procedural account of Armstrong's journey, yet the poetry never happens. Chazelle's take is dour, deliberately unromantic."[54]

Top ten lists[edit]

First Man was listed on numerous critics' top ten lists for 2018.[55]

Accolades[edit]

First Man received ten nominations at the 24th Critics' Choice Awards, where it won for Best Editing and Best Score.[59][60]

At the 76th Golden Globe Awards, where Claire Foy had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Hurwitz again won the award for Best Original Score,[61][62] The film was nominated for seven categories at the 72nd British Academy Film Awards, but did not win any. At the 91st Academy Awards, the film was nominated in four categories including Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Production Design, with the film's visual effects team of Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles and J. D. Schwalm winning the award for Best Visual Effects.[63]

American flag controversy[edit]

On August 31, 2018, it was reported that the film would not include a scene of Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag on the Moon. Florida Senator Marco Rubio described the omission as "total lunacy". Chazelle responded with a statement, saying: "I show the American flag standing on the lunar surface, but the flag being physically planted into the surface is one of several moments [...] that I chose not to focus upon. To address the question of whether this was a political statement, the answer is no. My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America's mission to the Moon."[64] United States President Donald Trump commented on the film, "It's almost like they're embarrassed at the achievement coming from America, I think it's a terrible thing. When you think of Neil Armstrong and when you think of the landing on the moon, you think about the American flag. For that reason, I wouldn't even want to watch the movie."[65] Following the film's below-expectations opening of $16 million, some analysts speculated that the flag controversy was in part to blame.[41][42][66]

Janet Armstrong[edit]

The film revived international interest in Armstrong's first wife, Janet, who plays a central part in the film.[67][68][69] She died a few months before the film's release.[70]

Factual errors[edit]

During Armstrong's 1961 flight in an X-15, the rocket plane begins “ballooning” (i.e., bouncing off the top of the atmosphere). The view out the window shows a carpet of clouds just below the wings. But Armstrong was at 120,000 feet, about twice the altitude at which even the highest clouds form.[71]

The cockpit, instrument panels and switches of both Gemini 8 and the Lunar Module are grimy and even rusted. But all early spacecraft were pristine, single-use ships that had never been flown before. According to Jim Lovell, they even had something of a new-car smell.[71]

Armstrong learns in the same conversation that he will command Apollo 11 and become the first man on the moon. But Apollo astronauts were assigned to their crews sometimes years in advance. For the two-plus years leading up to Apollo 11 it was assumed that the first lunar landing wouldn't be attempted until Apollo 12, 13 or even 14.[71]

On the lunar surface, Armstrong spends a few minutes alone at Little West Crater. He opens his gloved hand to reveal his daughter's tiny bracelet and drops it into the crater. While Armstrong did visit the crater, there is no historical record that he brought the bracelet with him to the moon.[71]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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