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Film / First Man

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"The entire world is watching."
"You're down here and you look up and you don't think about it too much, but space exploration changes your perception. It allows us to see things that we should have seen a long time ago."
Neil Armstrong

First Man is a 2018 biopic film about the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, with Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, and Pablo Schreiber. The film was directed by Damien Chazelle, who previously directed Whiplash and La La Land.

The movie chronicles the career of Neil Armstrong during the Space Race, from his selection into the Gemini Program to the landing on the moon. It is based the book by James R. Hansen.

The movie is stylistically unique in how precise it is with the visual and audio depiction of spaceflight, there are no broader establishing shots of any aircraft or spacecraft in flight but instead stays inside the cockpit or with inferred "cameras" mounted on the outside. A rocket liftoff is depicted in Real Time from viewpoint of the crew with only audio cues and what can be glimpsed through the windows.

Previews: Trailer 1, Trailer 2, Trailer 3.

First Man provides examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: The difficulty and danger of flights the Gemini and Apollo astronauts go through is emphasized to show just how skilled they are. In the opening scene, Neil takes an X-15 to the edge of the atmosphere and avoids bouncing off into space.
  • Action Prologue: The film opens with Neil testing a high altitude supersonic jet which nearly skips off the atmosphere. Ultimately he ends up crash landing the plane.
  • Airborne Aircraft Carrier: While barely visible, as the opening takes place entirely from Neil's perspective in the cockpit, the X-15 is deployed from under the wing of a B-52.
  • And Mission Control Rejoiced: Not, as might be expected with Apollo 11 (that is entirely done with the original radio audio), but with Gemini 8 docking with the Agena docking vehicle.note 
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Asked by Janet to Neil:
    Janet: What are the chances that you're not coming back?
  • Armor-Piercing Response: After Neil injures himself training for the lunar landing, he's asked by superiors if it's worth the cost in lives. Neil, remembering the slew of dead astronauts left in the wake of the moon landing attempt, snaps that it's a little late to be asking that question.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • In reality the X-15 flight that opens the movie happened after Karen's death, not before.
    • While Neil did crash while flying the LLRV, he suffered nothing more than a bit tongue during his parachute landing.
    • The Apollo 1 disaster is portrayed as having killed the pilots within seconds by a fire followed by a large explosion. In real life, most of the burns on the astronauts occurred in postmortem, with the cause of death being asphyxiation and smoke inhalation.note  Furthermore, the spark caused by faulty wiring is portrayed as occurring within Ed White's line of sight, whereas in real life it originated from under Grissom's seat.
    • Though Neil was attending an event at the White House at the same time as the Apollo 1 fire, he (as well as the other astronauts present) did not receive a call notifying him what had happened until after he had returned to his hotel.
    • The film gives the impression that the American public opinion was against strongly against the Apollo program. While there was a vocal segment of the population who felt it was a waste of money, the majority of the American public was in support of the mission.
    • During the Apollo 11 launch, Michael Collins is shown sitting in the LMP's seat while Buzz Aldrin is in the CDR's seat when it should have been the reversenote .
    • While Neil really did head over to the West crater off the mission plan, it's speculation that he might have left anything in it, let alone any of Karen's possessions. Other astronauts did leave personal items on the Moon, but if Neil did this, he took that secret to his grave.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: An interviewer asks Neil if he'll be "affected" by the recent death of his daughter during the training program. An annoyed Neil responds by saying it'd be unreasonable to assume it wouldn't have an affect on him.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: The movie mostly uses Widescreen 2.39:1, as director Damien Chazelle shot the movie in a mixture of celluloid formats. These include 35mm 2-perf Techniscope, 3-perf Super 35, Super 16mm, and IMAX 15-perf 70mm. The latter is used for the lunar sequences with its taller aspect ratio of 1.43:1, but protected for 1.90:1 for Digital IMAX and 2.39:1. The Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray releases both show the lunar sequences in 16:9, filling the whole TV.
  • Badass Bookworm: All the astronauts, really, but Neil is notably an engineer as well as an astronaut.
  • Berserk Button: Downplayed with someone as quiet as Neil, but one of the only times he gets truly angry is when an interviewer brings up his dead daughter. Whenever he is reminded of her he has to go be alone immediately.
  • The Big Board: Deke Slayton draws the distance from the Earth to the Moon to scale, across two blackboards.
  • Billions of Buttons: When Neil enters Gemini 8 and Apollo 11, the camera lingers to show the countless buttons, switches, and displays both cockpits have.
  • Book Ends: Karen's bracelet shows up twice. First is when Neil hides it away in his desk drawer shortly after Karen dies at the beginning and before the Gemini program. The second is at the end of the film when Neil takes it with him and throws it into a crater on the moon.
  • Brutal Honesty: Buzz Aldrin twice makes honest but rude remarks about dead pilots in the program. When he says that he's simply saying what everybody else is thinking, Neil remarks that maybe he shouldn't.
  • Centrifugal Farce: Neil's first experience with the three-axis centrifuge is one of the more light-hearted moments in the film, especially when a clearly addled Armstrong goes to his next training class only to get a massive Doorstopper of a textbook (figuratively) thrown at him. However, the scene is also an opportunity for him to show how cool he is under pressure (and a foreshadowing of his much more serious encounter with centrifugal gee-forces on his Gemini 8 mission).
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Janet starts smoking more as the problems with the Apollo program start to mount up.
  • Cool Plane: The North American X-15 in the opening scenes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: When asked at an Apollo 11 pre-launch press conference what he would like to take to the moon (after Buzz Aldrin gives a sentimental crowd-pleasing answer) Neil remarks if he had a choice he'd take "more fuel". Subverted because, while it sounds like a snarky response, he actually meant it.
  • Death Notification: Robert R. Gilruth and Deke Slayton go over a press release to be issued in the event that Armstrong and Aldrin are stranded on the moon with no hope of rescue. The press release was real, though never used.
  • Death of a Child: As in real life, Neil's very young daughter dies of brain cancer early on in the film. The already stoic Armstrong withdraws from his family and throws himself into his dangerous work as an astronaut instead of grieving properly.
  • Determinator: Neil Armstrong embodies this trope, being driven by the death of his daughter to get towards the moon. Every setback the program encounters along the way only makes him even more determined.
    Neil: We need to fail down here, so we don't fail up there.
  • Dispense with the Pleasantries: A trait of Armstrong when he's trying to work, and especially in flight.
    Mission Control: Gemini 8, can we get a status update?
    Neil: [busy writing out a course correction] No. Got too much to do.
  • Downer Beginning: The first few minutes are dedicated to showing the Armstrongs providing cancer treatment for their toddler daughter. Ultimately the treatments are unsuccessful and she dies.
  • The Engineer: Neil's profession as an engineer is a major focus and one of the reasons he's chosen to be an astronaut. One of the military pilot candidates refers to him as an "egghead", which sounds amusingly odd given that the audience has already seen him as an Ace Pilot.
  • Famous for Being First: Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon, an achievement so significant they made an entire movie about it.
  • A Father to His Men: Deke Slayton, one of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, deeply cares for the Gemini and Apollo crews. He is nearly brought to tears when going over the "worst case scenario" brief for Apollo 11. Incidentally, Slayton was the only one of the Mercury Seven who, at that time, had not gone into space. He was diagnosed with an erratic heart rhythm shortly before his own space flight and was grounded. He finally did go into space in 1975 as part of the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Neil Armstrong lands on the moon. The infamous end to Apollo 1 also comes as no surprise. There's still an amazing amount of tension in the movie during these scenes.
  • Foreshadowing: At a press conference, the astronauts are asked what else they'd like to take to the Moon, and Armstrong answers "More fuel". The Lunar Module almost ran out of fuel during the landing.note 
  • A Glass in the Hand: After being informed about the Apollo 1 fire, while attending a reception at the White House, Neil breaks the wine glass he was holding.
  • Good with Numbers: Neil works out a course correction with paper and pencil that puts Gemini 8 exactly where it needs to be to see the Agena target vehicle and dock.
  • Happily Ever Before: The film ends on a hopeful note, showing that Neil and Janet's marriage remains strong despite the incredible stress his career put on the family. In real life, the marriage was on tenuous ground and the two eventually divorced.note 
  • Happily Married:
    • Neil and Janet Armstrong, mostly, despite the stress of the astronaut training. In real life, they would divorce in 1994.
    • Ed and Pat White, leading the latter to be rendered completely numb following her husband's death.
  • Heroic BSoD: After the Apollo 1 disaster, Janet finds Pat standing silent and motionless in her driveway, with a slew of forgotten newspapers scattered around.
  • Hero of Another Story: Chuck Yeager and Gus Grissom (The Right Stuff), and Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) have essentially cameos here. Deke Slayton, on the other hand, has prominent roles in all three of these films.
  • Humble Hero: Both the movie version and the real Neil Armstrong. It was one of the reasons NASA chose him to be first on the moon.
  • Improbable Piloting Skills: Naturally.
    • Neil manages to regain control of the X-15 flight as it threatens to skip off the atmosphere helplessly into space and he even manages to land roughly where he was supposed to.
    • Neil recovers the spin on the Gemini flight, with little help from Mission Control, in pitch darkness, and after his co-pilot has passed out from the G-forces. He does it by correctly deciding that the flight control thrusters are causing the problem, turning them off, and then using the ship's re-entry thrusters to regain control. He saves the astronauts' lives, but the mission has to be aborted because he used up three-quarters of the re-entry fuel doing it.
    • Neil fails to regain control of the LLRV (in reality the vehicle suddenly lost fuel pressure to its attitude thrusters, so there was no way to regain control), but he does eject in time to avoid being killed in the crash.
    • Lastly, and most memorably, landing the LEM manually to avoid landing on top of a boulder or in a crater, all while the landing computer keeps setting off the master alarm. The movie, in fact, downplays the precariousness of the LEM landing as the error codes displayed by the computer required more serious intervention than just turning the alarm off each time. This was displayed with some accuracy in From the Earth to the Moon.
  • In Space, Everyone Can See Your Face: Averted during the moonwalk sequence; the astronauts' faces are obscured by their gold-tinted helmet visors, and when Neil raises his visor when he's looking down into a dark crater, his face initially remains in shadow. The audience is finally able to see Neil's face when he drops Karen's bracelet into the crater.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Buzz Aldrin is insensitive and arrogant, but he's still competent and charismatic, and he and Neil get along long enough to get to the moon together.
  • Jitter Cam: From beginning to end, the camera drifts around when one might expect it to keep steady.
  • Manly Tears: Neil cries twice over his daughter Karen, but he does it where only the audience can see him do it.
  • Nerves of Steel: You don't get to become an astronaut unless you are absolutely cool under pressure, as Armstrong demonstrates multiple times. Whether he's dismissing reporters certain of his coming demise, shaking off nausea from his daily flight simulator, or parachuting out of an exploding test plane, he stays as calm and disciplined as ever.
  • Not So Stoic:
    • At a funeral, Neil imagines seeing his dead daughter, and promptly leaves, banging his car into another in process. Earlier on in the film, at his daughter's wake, he keeps his cool until he heads alone into his study, at which point he promptly bursts into tears.
    • Janet, who is as stoic as her husband is, completely loses it when she realizes Neil intends to leave for the Apollo 11 mission without preparing their sons for the possibility of him not making it back.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • On Gemini 8:
      Dave Scott: Neil, we're in a bank.
    • The Apollo 1 pilots upon realizing there's a fire in the oxygen-rich cockpit.
    • Neil and Buzz when they realize the LEM is headed towards a crater full of car-sized boulders. It's subdued but clearly tense when Neil takes over manual piloting to get to a better landing spot, and neither of them are comfortable until they've grounded.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The film opens with the death of Armstrong's daughter Karen from a brain tumor.
  • P.O.V. Cam: Used on several occasions:
    • The film open's with Neil's view out the X-15 cockpit windows.
    • We also see Neil's POV as he climbs into the Gemini 8 capsule, which shows off the impressive number of switches and gauges.
    • Most importantly, Neil's view as he climbs down the LEM ladder onto the surface of the moon and takes his first step.
  • Precision F-Strike: Janet Armstrong snaps and uses the F-word when Neil replies to her question of how likely it is he will make it home from Apollo 11 with a dry non-committal answer.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: The spin rate reading of Gemini 8 hits the top of the scale.
  • Second Place Is for Losers: The Americans are determined to get to the moon because the Soviets have beaten them at every major space accomplishment so far. Ed White is stunned when he learns that they have just beaten him at being the first EVA.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The unveiling of the iconic Saturn V rocket that would later send Apollo 11 to the moon is juxtaposed with a black activist performing the protest song "Whitey's on the Moon". There really wasn't much fanfare in real life, as the program was coming under fire for its financial (and human) costs and wasn't vindicated until after the moon landing.
  • Space Is Noisy: Averted. The moment Armstrong and Aldrin open the hatch on the LEM, all ambient noise stops. For the rest of their stay on the moon, the only sounds are radio transmissions and the soundtrack.
  • Stepford Smiler: Janet is serious and not prone to smiling often, but is forced to put on a wholesome smile for the dozens of reporters who constantly lurk around her house or hang around for promotional photos.
  • Stock Footage: Much of the Apollo 11 launch sequence used genuine footage from NASA's archivesnote  with some VFX used to fill in the edges to match to the film's aspect ratio.
  • The Stoic: Not only are most of the pilots stoic (particularly Neil, who was famously quiet and enigmatic in real life), but their wives are as well, even during funerals (justified by Janet when she mentions that she and Neil got "good" at attending funerals due to a number of pilot deaths in previous years). When Janet finally sees Neil in quarantine after he comes back from the mission, she hardly changes expression.
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy: Alluded to when Neil is nearly killed in the LLRV accident. His seniors tell him it's too risky for him to fly such a dangerous machine again. Neil points out that it's the best training they have for how to fly the real lunar module, and that it's a "little late" to talk about not risking the lives of the astronauts. It's clear that Neil commits to the Apollo program because he thinks that backing out would make the sacrifices of the earlier astronauts, and other pilots who died during test flights, count for nothing.
  • Team Mom: Michael Collins fusses over Armstrong and Aldrin as they make final preparations to land on the moon, double and triple-checking to see that the landing crew has everything they need.
  • Tragic Keepsake: Neil keeps a bracelet with his dead daughter's name on it, later dropping it into a crater on the moon in her memory.
  • Training from Hell: The 3-axis gyroscope contraption causes Armstrong to black out. When he comes to he immediately wants to try again, and is then seen throwing up in the toilet... followed soon after by Ed White in similar difficulties.
  • Trip to the Moon Plot: The film is a biography of Neil Armstrong, so naturally enough the movie's climax features the Moon landing from Apollo 11.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Subverted. Though the camera cuts away from most of the actual vomiting, the next scene shows the pilots in a classroom, with many of them having vomit stains over the fronts of their shirts.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Ed White's reaction to seeing that the Russians have just beaten him at being the first EVA.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."