‘I was astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the mission and the toll it took on all involved’
First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to be the first man on the moon. Laura Harding talks to stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy and director Damien Chazelle
Most people know the talking points about the 1969 moon landing — the famous words uttered by Neil Armstrong, the image of the American flag fluttering on the surface.
What is less well known is the impact the race to the moon had on the people left behind on Earth. But the real cost of human achievement has long been an area of interest for director Damien Chazelle, who has explored the idea in previous films La La Land and Whiplash, and who turns his attention again to this subject for his new film, First Man.
“Neil always insisted there was nothing special about him,” Chazelle says.
“He said he was just one of many, and circumstances enabled him to be the first man on the moon. There was this normality to him.”
That normality is a crucial component to the film, which reunites him with his La La Land star Ryan Gosling in the role of Armstrong and explores the astronaut’s home life and family tragedy, as well as the sheer force of will it took to get him to the moon.
“Before I began work on First Man, I knew the textbook narrative of the mission to the moon, the success story of an iconic achievement... but little else,” the director adds.
“Once I started digging, I grew astounded by the sheer madness and danger of the enterprise, the number of times it circled failure, as well as the toll it took on all involved.
“I wanted to understand what compelled these men to voyage into deep space, and what the experience, moment by moment, breath by breath, might have felt like.”
But the domestic angle was just as important and Chazelle says: “This was a story that needed to hinge between the moon and the kitchen sink, the vast expanses of space juxtaposed against the textures of quotidian life and the Armstrong family’s most intimate, guarded moments.
“My hope was that this approach could highlight the heartbreak, joy, lives lived and lost in the name of one of history’s most famous goals: setting foot on the moon.”
For Gosling, the role gave him a chance to learn more than the basics and the headlines. “I think as soon as I learned what the moon was, I learned that somebody named Neil Armstrong walked on it,” says the actor.
“He was synonymous with the moon but I realised, after reading James Hansen’s book First Man, that I knew very little.
“On an emotional level, I was surprised to learn just how much loss Neil and his wife Janet experienced before and during those historic missions.
“On a practical level, I don’t think I fully appreciated how dangerous those missions were.
“How claustrophobic and frail those space capsules were, how primitive the technology was by today’s standards.
“I’ve always been interested in the extremes of a story, but what is unique to this story for me is just how extreme those extremes can be.
“I can’t imagine a greater duality than that between the intimacy and singularity of the Armstrongs’ personal life and the infinite nature of space that it’s intertwined with.
“These astronauts were using their comparative flashlight of scientific knowledge to contend with the infinite mysteries of the universe and, at the same time, taking out the trash and mowing their lawns back on Earth.”
Claire Foy, who takes on the role of Armstrong’s wife Janet, was also fascinated by the juxtaposition of scientific discovery and painful domesticity.
“It’s a very human story,” she says, thoughtfully.
“I don’t think this is just the story of the moon landing, it’s the story of a marriage and a family and what they endured, and their losses and also their triumphs.
“The more we show, on screen, people struggling and people going through very real things — when people assume that they are a hero or something like that — the better really, because you get to see the human at the centre of it.”
The film details the camera crews camped outside Janet’s home during her husband’s missions, and the pressure placed on her to appear on magazine covers.
“From the off, Janet was very, very real about the impact that this was having on her children and on herself,” says Foy.
“She knew what the media and Nasa wanted from her and she wasn’t going to give it to them. And that takes a huge amount of knowing yourself and knowing what the boundaries are.
“She just knew that instinctively and that was the reality of that situation. You had to take everything she said with a grain of salt because her external support was also heavily impacted by a time that was incredibly stressful, overwhelming and emotional for these women.
“Like all the astronauts’ wives, they are in the background of history. Nobody spent time investigating what it was like to be them until much later on.”
Foy was given the chance to really explore Janet’s journey while she was rehearsing with Gosling and Chazelle.
“Improvised rehearsal that is also filmed in costume and in the sets is very rare but Damien is very rare as well so that was really special and really helpful,” she adds.
“He was so collaborative and gives you so much space as an actor, and is so respectful and trusts you so much and he gave us so much room to improvise and explore and push the boundaries of scenes, and I really can’t speak highly enough of him. I think he’s a genius.”
- First Man is released today