The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum lit up Thursday night with a collection of starpower not often seen in the nation’s capitol. The museum’s IMAX theater was the fitting venue for the premiere of Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, drawing a crowd of Hollywood heavyweights to DC — including stars Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy — and legendary members of the history-making braintrust that helped put two men on the moon in 1969.
At the museum’s entrance, the red carpet was rolled out in front of the iconic gold-foiled Lunar Module — a prototype of the one Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon in 1969 — for both the stars and the movie’s real life subjects, including Armstrong’s children and colleagues. Notably quiet were the film’s biggest stars: Gosling and Foy zoomed through crowd and discreetly exited shortly after the film, but not before posing for a quick photo op in the museum’s Apollo 11 exhibit.
“Thank you to the National Air and Space museum for fulfilling a childhood dream of mine of getting to show something on this screen,” said Chazelle in his short opening remarks, thanking both the actors and film crew as well as the legion of NASA engineers and consultants who helped bring this story to the screen with a painstaking amount of accuracy. The film is based on the book of the same name by James R. Hansen, but the film’s production team spent a good deal of time researching additional details of story with primary sources, including Armstrong’s first wife Janet (who died in June, 2018) and his colleagues in the Gemini and Apollo space programs.
In the film, too, Gosling-as-Armstrong does very little talking — especially to his wife, Janet (Foy), or about the death of his daughter, Karen (Lucy Brooke Stafford), who died at age 2. Armstrong’s emotional distance is a constant weight in the film, an unflappable stoicism that makes for the ideal astronaut and an untenable partner. We see his family up close as Armstrong slips from an engaged dad who cared deeply for his ill daughter and played winningly with his young boys, to a father emotionally unable to connect with his kids, even on the eve of his departure for his famous mission. We’re also offered a window into Janet’s psyche — both her deep admiration and love for a husband who thinks that aerospace calculations are “neat” and her despair at his inability to be present for his family. (She eventually left him in 1989, after 33 years of marriage, due to “years of emotional distance” according to a note she left on their kitchen table.) We also see the tension between Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), incompatible partners who are thrown together in their efforts to push the limits of man’s capabilities.
The evening was politically neutral, but the commentary was clear: What our nation can accomplish when we come together is far greater than what we are doing right now.
“The narrative around NASA in the ‘60s has been sugarcoated, like they were superheroes and it was easy,” writer and executive producer Josh Singer told The Hollywood Reporter. “But they weren’t superheroes — they were ordinary guys who were working really hard, and there was a lot of tragedy involved.”
“I think there’s this feeling now in our country where a lot of people are asking ‘what’s the country doing for me?’ This is a story of a time when people asked ‘what can I do for my country?’” said Singer, echoing President Kennedy’s famous sentiment from that era. “In order to achieve great things, we need to be willing to sacrifice and work hard. Neil [Armstrong] was a leader, but he wasn’t a guy who led by tweeting — he was a guy who led by action. It’s a portrait in leadership of a kind that we don’t see that often anymore.”
“It’s easy to call someone a hero because of the thing that they do that defines them as such; it’s more interesting to see all the tiny little components that create that hero,” said Brian D’Arcy James, who plays astronaut Joe Walker. As for why this story is important to tell right now, James suggested that everyone could use a little dose of perspective: “If this movie can give us a little more room to breathe — a little more sense of the space in which we need to live and treat each other with respect, that would be a good thing.”