I just found out about First Man, the Neil Armstrong movie coming out October 12. Finally! Twenty-three years after Apollo 13, there’s a third non-fiction astronaut drama coming to the big screen.
Only three? Yep. Outside of any indie films I haven’t heard of, the only non-fiction dramas about the American manned space program have been The Right Stuff (1983), Apollo 13 (1995), and now First Man (2018). Tom Hanks and Ron Howard teamed up again after Apollo 13 to make an excellent mini-series, From the Earth to the Moon (1998), but the format of a mini-series makes for a different kind of story-telling than a two-hour movie, so I’m considering it separately.
It’s a shame there have only been the three, over the so many decades of the manned space program, and I’ve tried to figure out why that is. The best I can think of is that it’s a lot smaller scope than a war—you can get a single poster with the portrait of everyone who’s been in space. And despite the accidents (Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia) and struggles we’ve had, it’s been so successful for the most part that it is hard to create a sense of drama for any but a few stories.
The Right Stuff covers Project Mercury and the lead up to it. Apollo 13 sticks with a single episode in the lunar program. First Man appears to focus on Armstrong himself, both in his Project Gemini experience and in his training for the first moon landing, perhaps including something of a family drama.
Let’s see how the style of spaceflight story-telling has evolved over the last 35 years, through the previews for these three. First is the trailer for The Right Stuff. This is an old school, pre-Don LaFontaine style of trailer. (Seriously, watch that Don LaFontaine mashup video. It’s amazing how he so dominated movie preview voiceovers in the ’80s and ’90s.) This looks like a mix of drama and a bit of an action movie. Planes and rockets streak by, things blow up, and there are arguments, but there’s also a bit of humor (“Gordo? I have to urinate.”) The music swells, it’s glorious, uplifting, and it ends with Handel’s Messiah, musically making the point Tom Wolfe wrote about the virtual apotheosis of the astronauts. If you have a minute, watch the last five minutes of the movie—Gordo Cooper in the final Mercury launch, and the end credits. At 2:40, Levon Helms gives a closing narration that always moves me to tears. Notice how the arrangement switches to an organ when he describes Gus Grissom’s death in the Apollo 1 fire. Funereal. And then that glorious ending, with an homage to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D. My high school friends and I had Helm’s narration memorized. I still do.
Now let’s move up a decade and watch Apollo 13‘s trailer. We’re right smack dab in the middle of the Don LaFontaine era, but this is one of the few previews of the ’90s I remember that didn’t have any narration at all. It is, I think, one of the very best movie previews ever done. Watch how they interleave Gene Kranz calling out the launch status check (go/no-go for launch) with Jim Lovell telling his wife that his crew is getting an earlier mission than they’d planned. They didn’t use the music from the actual film, which I assume wasn’t completed yet. But it’s a good selection from other action/adventure/dramas from the early ’90s (Clear and Present Danger, Total Recall), and it conveys the feel of the actual movie. Now, in this movie, we know there’s going to be a disaster and a close shave rescuing the astronauts. But the preview portrays the excitement of flying into space before switching to the crisis and drama. The music is exciting and dramatic. Look at the faces of the astronauts’ wives as they watch the launch (the most thrilling scene in the movie)—Mary Haise is smiling and in tears, unsure how to handle her husband’s very first space flight.
Now let’s look at the First Man preview. It covers mild-mannered, famously shy Neil Armstrong in preparation for the first manned moon landing, which went successfully, though with the usual glitches along the way. So how does the preview set the mood? Let’s watch it together. My reaction: “So…they’re making Apollo 11 out as a horror movie?”
First thing is the music. The movie preview style has really changed since the ’90s. Action movies now all seem to use that deep, horrifying, electronic, groaning “Brrrrrap!” sound in their previews, any time you see something big looming on screen. Like…well, the moon, I reckon. The first minute of the preview seems pretty reasonable for the subject matter. Armstrong was an X-15 pilot, and he was nearly killed in a crash of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle. The second half of the preview is where they seem to play up more drama than they should, with more horror-movie music and dialogue that doesn’t seem to be tense enough to go with it (“Anybody got a Swiss Army knife?”). Most of the preview is dark. The rooms are dark. The outdoors are dark. The family sits around a supper table with only the sparest light of a bulb to illuminate their faces, leaving the house dark.
I’m hoping that the final movie has a different feel to it than this. Apollo 11 and all that led up to it has plenty of drama, to be sure, but this gives me a sense of foreboding and hopelessness, rather than the glory and excitement and tragedy all together that the other two instilled. Well, fingers crossed!
Here’s my question to you Ricochetti: What other themes and events of the space program would be worthy of big-screen treatment? I think the Challenger and Columbia accidents would be obvious dramas. You could put a lot into the experience of the families of the astronauts, how Mission Control handled the crisis, and the investigations. I’d like to see something about Gemini, which is often forgotten. From the Earth to the Moon covered it in some detail, but it would be nice to have a movie.