If Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle’s first joint venture in “La La Land” wasn’t your cup of tea, you’ll see a more authentic side of both men’s craftsmanship in “First Man,” their biopic of Neil Armstrong.
Unlike “La La Land,” there’s nothing nostalgic, glamorous or splashy about their newest project together. It’s gritty, almost monochromatic and engrossing. Space travel in Armstrong’s day was incredibly dirty, claustrophobic and nausea-inducing work, and Chazelle’s documentary-style shooting doesn’t let the viewer forget it.
The technical aspects of the movie (now in theaters) required extensive research, helped by visits to NASA and support and advice from current and past personnel. The set design involved precise, true-to-size replicas of space capsules of the time period.
To modern eyes, those capsules are entirely worrisome — made up of quilted, clattering metal that feels ready to rip to shreds at a moment’s notice along with meager knobs, switches and buttons that frequently get stuck or unresponsive.
One look and you realize how precarious and preposterous it was that we made it to the moon. Technology wasn’t so advanced, and death was a daily risk for astronauts in America’s space race against Russia.
Neil Armstrong is our tightly wound, non-complaining, stoic hero portrayed by Gosling. “There is a humility to Ryan and a sense of privacy to Ryan that I do think I see parallels of in Neil,” said Chazelle.
The director wanted Gosling to play Armstrong long before they met. Gosling agreed even before they started filming “La La Land,” during which the “First Man” script was adapted (by “Spotlight” writer Josh Singer) from the 2005 book by James R. Hansen.
“There was one review of Ryan’s that I totally agree with: He’s the type of actor that makes every other actor look lazy,” said Chazelle. “It’s exciting to be able to work with an actor like that. He gives everything to the role. He does a deep dive like no one else.”
That “deep dive” included understanding a man of few words who eschewed the public eye. There were interviews with family members, co-workers and friends. There was space camp and zero gravity training at NASA. There were the physical demands of shooting without a green screen and doing his own stunts.
Armstrong was the quintessential Midwestern character. An Eagle Scout and veteran of the Korean War, he was highly intelligent, capable, honorable and humble. He would always defer to teamwork as the source of his success. He wasn’t flashy. Such characteristics don’t lend themselves to a showy leading man. Gosling seemed to relish the opportunity for subtlety.
“To me those things are what made him so fascinating. There’s such a great depth of character to him. He’s a very, very complicated, nuanced person,” said Gosling.
“It was a beautiful way to get to know someone [through their loved ones]. He’s known to be quite a remote person, but everyone was enthusiastic about sharing with me, you know, the little things that they had learned about him … things he might try and hide that were really fascinating,” said Gosling. “He was like a puzzle, so many layers to him. The challenge was trying to get them all in.”
So what were some of those puzzle pieces Gosling used?
Gosling said Armstrong was a fan of the theremin, loved musicals and had a wealth of knowledge in vast subjects. Astronaut Michael Collins shared a story Gosling loved: “They were in a museum in Italy [on a world tour after they landed]. And they were by some Michelangelos and the tour guide didn’t show up, so Neil just started giving the tour. And people started gathering around because he gave just as good of a tour.”
Said Chazelle, “There’s a misperception that because [Armstrong] didn’t show a lot of emotion very often that he didn’t feel a lot of emotion. It didn’t take long for us to realize how deeply he did feel.”
The layers of Armstrong’s character, along with the sacrifices of his fellow astronauts and families, leave a lasting impression of awe, pride, patriotism and gratitude. Armstrong’s quiet fortitude seems in such contrast to our modern-day heroes and leaders that it’s a reprieve to weary ears and hearts.
Chazelle hopes that audiences gain a clearer understanding of Armstrong not as a “pure mythological superhero figure” but “an ordinary fallible human being thrust into extraordinary circumstances who did these things, as Kennedy said, ‘because they were hard.’
“I hope it reminds [us] what human beings are capable of when there’s enough of a drive to accomplish something … that this was an act of human beings serving their country and the world, this higher ideal of what can lift all of us together.”