Adding to the realism is the fact that Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren shot the first third of the film, depicting Armstrong’s test pilot days through the early Gemini program, in Super 16 mm. This means it looks exactly like actual NASA documentary footage from the period. In fact, some of that real footage is used in the film and VFX shots are made to match it. The middle sections, depicting the Apollo era, are shot in 35 mm (both 2-perf and 3-perf), but with a strong grain texture, which still feels period and yet suggests the passage of time. During the Apollo 11 flight as seen in the film, the CAPCOM radio calls from Houston are often the actual recordings of the real events. (Astronaut Charlie Duke, who was the real CAPCOM for the mission, even recorded a bit of new radio dialogue for this film, which has been blended in with his original audio from 1969.) And when Armstrong and Aldrin eventually step out onto the lunar surface, the footage switches to 65 mm, so the clarity hits you like a wall. Up until that moment the film is 2.39, but on the lunar surface it becomes 1.43. What’s more, the filmmakers are actually using the same lenses the Apollo astronauts used in their still photography on the surface. The result is very effective.
But the thing that struck me most about First Man is that there’s never been a film that’s shown its viewers, in such a personal and immediate way, what it really meant to accomplish the achievement of walking on the Moon with 1960s technology. When Armstrong and Dave Scott are strapped into their capsule for the Gemini 8 mission, you can hear the hatch groaning as it’s shut with a heavy clank. The control panels inside are scuffed up, worn, physical. There’s tape, straps, rivets. As the launch is about to happen, Armstrong notices that a fly has been trapped inside the capsule with them. When launch occurs, things are shaking so much you can barely read the dials – that’s true to what actually happened. And you as a viewer are seeing things from Armstrong’s personal perspective. In that way, First Man is a revelation.
So too are Ryan Gosling (Blade Runner: 2049) and Claire Foy (The Crown) as Neil and his wife Janet. Armstrong had the stoicism typical of most men in that era, but he was a test pilot too. And even among the astronauts, he had a uniquely closed off and focused quality. He was a cool cucumber, who rarely showed his emotions. So these performances aren’t showy, they’re restrained, and they’re captured perfectly by close framing on faces. Volumes of feeling are expressed in half smiles, tiny gestures, little nuances. This is a very sophisticated piece of filmmaking. The rest of the cast is remarkable too, including Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) as Deke Slayton, Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) as Ed White, Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island) as Gus Grissom, and Ciarán Hinds (The Sum of All Fears) as Robert R. Gilruth, among others.
Of course, First Man is based on the only official autobiography of Armstrong, written by James R. Hanson, who was a producer and consultant for this film. Armstrong’s actual sons were consultants on the project too. And it’s clear that the filmmakers had the extensive support of NASA and the entire spaceflight industry here. Honestly, I can’t think of a more fitting way to honor Neil Armstrong the man, and the achievements of Gemini and Apollo, not to mention a better way to kick off the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and the 60th anniversary of NASA itself (which was yesterday, as it happens), than this film.
Readers have asked me a couple question about First Man, the first being should they marathon Apollo 13, The Right Stuff and other similar films to get in the mood for it. Truthfully, the best thing you can do to prepare yourself for this experience is to watch Al Reinert’s documentary on the Apollo missions For All Mankind. It’s available on Blu-ray from Criterion (see my review on The Bits here). Not only does its 16 mm documentary feel prepare you visually for what you’ll see, its ethereal Brian Eno soundtrack must surely have inspired composer Justin Hurwitz’s theremin and Moog-infused score. The other thing I’ve been asked is if IMAX is the way you should see First Man. I think yes. The 16 mm photography and close framing are a little testing at times on the very large screen, but that large format really pays off when the film gets to the Moon.
First Man is something special, something singular. It’s a film of stunning authenticity, that places you in the capsule seat and in the spacesuit for some of the most hair-raising and iconic moments of American manned spaceflight. It’s also a powerful and moving experience that gives audiences the chance to walk in Neil Armstrong’s shoes, to ride along with him on a journey that changed his life in ways that he – like all of the Apollo astronauts – struggled to process and comprehend for the rest of his life. This is quite a different approach to cinematic realism in space than, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s one that I suspect Stanley Kubrick would have found to be superb indeed.
On a personal note, I should add that my own viewing experience was enhanced by the fact that my neighbor, both in line and in the next seat in the theater itself, was none other than writer David Gerrold (of Star Trek’s The Trouble with Tribbles fame), which lent itself to an hour’s worth of lively and interesting conversation beforehand about film, the entertainment industry, science fiction, spaceflight, and the craft of writing. I’ve long admired David and I enjoyed our chat immensely.
I’m pleased to say that First Man is worth the wait. It delivered upon even my very high expectations. Damien Chazelle is a serious talent and a filmmaker whose work is now must-see in my book. Don’t miss it.