‘First Man’: Neil Armstrong Movie Joins ‘The Right Stuff’ and ‘Apollo 13’

 

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.

 

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There are 38 comments.

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  1. Member

    Tim H.: 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).

    You forgot Capricorn One.

     

    • #1
    • June 12, 2018 at 2:06 pm
    • 5 likes
  2. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Tim H.: 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).

    You forgot Capricorn One.

     

    Shhhhhhhhhhhhh!

    • #2
    • June 12, 2018 at 2:11 pm
    • 4 likes
  3. Inactive

    I’m reserving judgement until I see the movie. Trailers can be deceptive.

    • #3
    • June 12, 2018 at 2:12 pm
    • Like
  4. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Misthiocracy, Joke Pending (View Comment):

    I’m reserving judgement until I see the movie. Trailers can be deceptive.

    Ohhh, yeah.

    • #4
    • June 12, 2018 at 2:15 pm
    • Like
  5. Member

    So, are we going to have a black woman and a gay Native American man in the crew? You know, for diversity! (TM) and inclusion! (TM).

    • #5
    • June 12, 2018 at 3:09 pm
    • 4 likes
  6. Member

    Also, there was a made-for-TV movie – Challenger. I know. I was an extra in the movie. (You can see me in the cafeteria scene.)

    • #6
    • June 12, 2018 at 3:10 pm
    • 6 likes
  7. Member

    “Marooned” (1969) was still in theaters when Apollo 13 happened in 1970. It’s fictional, so it doesn’t count here, but it was apparently the space movie favored by the actual astronauts. It’s worth a look. The Apollo Applications Program orbiting lab in “Marooned” would launch as Skylab several years later. Unusually, the film has no music score, just ominous sounds, each associated with a different spacecraft. 

    The effects are not that great; “Marooned” was already in production when “2001” opened, raising the bar for space special effects forever, and the “Marooned” crew was always defensive about it later. 

    • #7
    • June 12, 2018 at 4:14 pm
    • 3 likes
  8. Member

    There is a saying that you can’t judge a book by its movie. I would add an addendum to this, you can’t judge a movie by its trailer.

     

    • #8
    • June 12, 2018 at 4:49 pm
    • 1 like
  9. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Also, there was a made-for-TV movie – Challenger. I know. I was an extra in the movie. (You can see me in the cafeteria scene.)

    Oh, that’s really cool! What channel was it on? I assume it came out in the late ’80s?

    • #9
    • June 12, 2018 at 6:03 pm
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  10. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    “Marooned” (1969) was still in theaters when Apollo 13 happened in 1970. It’s fictional, so it doesn’t count here, but it was apparently the space movie favored by the actual astronauts. It’s worth a look. The Apollo Applications Program orbiting lab in “Marooned” would launch as Skylab several years later.

    Huh! I hadn’t known of this one. “And co-starring Gene Hackman as Buzz Lloyd.”

    • #10
    • June 12, 2018 at 6:11 pm
    • 2 likes
  11. Member

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Also, there was a made-for-TV movie – Challenger. I know. I was an extra in the movie. (You can see me in the cafeteria scene.)

    Oh, that’s really cool! What channel was it on? I assume it came out in the late ’80s?

    ABC. 1990. True story: My sister-in-law was giving birth to her youngest when it aired. It was on the TV in the room in the hospital. When the cafeteria scene appeared she began pointing at the TV and shouting, “That’s Mark. That’s my brother-in-law!” And the nurses thought she was going nuts.

    • #11
    • June 12, 2018 at 6:21 pm
    • 8 likes
  12. Member

    KSC has a brief dramatization of the development of the shuttle that was a lot of fun to watch. I’d be interested in that in a kind of Beautiful Mind type drama.

    • #12
    • June 12, 2018 at 6:47 pm
    • 1 like
  13. Member

    Tim H.: 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.

    Seems clear from the trailer that they’re using the Gemini 8 flight to set more dramatic tension. That’ll certainly do it.

    Looked to me like the launch that was depicted in the trailer was that mission, as there are two astronauts set equidistant from the center of the board.

    • #13
    • June 12, 2018 at 7:06 pm
    • 1 like
  14. Member

    A dramatization of the first space race (to launch the first satellite) could be interesting as long as it’s not oversimplified to be Korolev vs von Braun (BBC did a mini series on that). A Korolev vs Rosen vs vB story could be dramatized, but we’re past the 60th anniversary so nothing is likely to be done in the near future. I talked with Milt Rosen for a few minutes in 2009. He was weak in body but his mind still worked well.

    • #14
    • June 12, 2018 at 7:19 pm
    • 2 likes
  15. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    A dramatization of the first space race (to launch the first satellite) could be interesting as long as it’s not oversimplified to be Korolev vs von Braun (BBC did a mini series on that). A Korolev vs Rosen vs vB story could be dramatized, but we’re past the 60th anniversary so nothing is likely to be done in the near future. 

    Was Rosen at JPL? I admit, I haven’t heard his name, unless it was in your Explorer (or was it Vanguard?) story.

    • #15
    • June 12, 2018 at 8:04 pm
    • 1 like
  16. Member

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    A dramatization of the first space race (to launch the first satellite) could be interesting as long as it’s not oversimplified to be Korolev vs von Braun (BBC did a mini series on that). A Korolev vs Rosen vs vB story could be dramatized, but we’re past the 60th anniversary so nothing is likely to be done in the near future.

    Was Rosen at JPL? I admit, I haven’t heard his name, unless it was in your Explorer (or was it Vanguard?) story.

    He was the technical head of Project Vanguard.

    • #16
    • June 12, 2018 at 9:03 pm
    • 1 like
  17. Member

    I lived in Indian Hill, just outside Cincinnati near a guy named Neil Armstrong. He was a professor in aerodynamics at the University of Cincinnati. You might occassionally see him. He was a very quiet, unassuming man. One would never know who he was. He spoke at my children’s school and my son interviewed him. Quite a moment.

    He wasn’t steely eyed, but he was humble. A real American hero.

    • #17
    • June 13, 2018 at 8:34 am
    • 4 likes
  18. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    James Madison (View Comment):

    He was a professor in aerodynamics at the University of Cincinnati. You might occassionally see him. He was a very quiet, unassuming man. One would never know who he was.

    I was intrigued when I found out he’d gone on to teach in aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. I would have loved to have him as a professor. A really humble guy who didn’t like being in the press.

    • #18
    • June 13, 2018 at 9:14 am
    • 3 likes
  19. Coolidge

    There have been other TV movies about the space program. I don’t remember the title, but there was one about Apollo 11 a while back.

    There was also Hidden Figures from a couple years ago. I haven’t seen it, but it’s on my list.

    And while this isn’t a movie, every fan of the Apollo program should see the HBO series From The Earth To The Moon. It dramatizes the entire Apollo program, from the inception of the program and the Apollo 1 fire all the way through Apollo 17. It’s a fantastic series, with great visual effects and a stellar cast. Unfortunately it hasn’t been given a high-definition remaster, so it’s only available as a standard-definition DVD box set. Still not to be missed.

    • #19
    • June 13, 2018 at 9:40 am
    • 3 likes
  20. Member

    Here’s a 1954 (?) picture of people who were deliberating about a satellite (Project Orbiter). vB is seated at the bottom right. Milt Rosen is standing at the far right. Gil Moore told me in 2008 that the National Science Foundation did not want to point out that in 1958 the US had two satellite programs (Explorer and Vanguard) for fear of offending the Russians. I guess truth is no defense in some circles. BBC did a four part series in 2005 that largely ignored Rosen and Karel Bossart. I recently attended the 80th birthday celebration of Jan Bossart’s first wife (Jan is the older son of Karel).

    • #20
    • June 13, 2018 at 10:29 am
    • 3 likes
  21. Member
    Tim H. Post author

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Gil Moore told me in 2008 that the National Science Foundation did not want to point out that in 1958 the US had two satellite programs (Explorer and Vanguard) for fear of offending the Russians. I guess truth is no defense in some circles. BBC did a four part series in 2005 that largely ignored Rosen and Karel Bossart. 

    Very interesting. I had really not known about Rosen, although I sure knew of Vanguard. That’s really surprising about the NSF and Vanguard. Can that really have been their motivation?!

    I remember your article a year or more ago about your family’s experience in it. Have you written more on Rosen and Vanguard in particular?

    • #21
    • June 13, 2018 at 1:23 pm
    • Like
  22. Member

    Tim H. (View Comment):

    Richard Easton (View Comment):

    Gil Moore told me in 2008 that the National Science Foundation did not want to point out that in 1958 the US had two satellite programs (Explorer and Vanguard) for fear of offending the Russians. I guess truth is no defense in some circles. BBC did a four part series in 2005 that largely ignored Rosen and Karel Bossart.

    Very interesting. I had really not known about Rosen, although I sure knew of Vanguard. That’s really surprising about the NSF and Vanguard. Can that really have been their motivation?!

    I remember your article a year or more ago about your family’s experience in it. Have you written more on Rosen and Vanguard in particular?

    Here’s a short article I wrote about the Vanguard 60th.

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/3477/1

    • #22
    • June 13, 2018 at 1:47 pm
    • 2 likes
  23. Member

    There was a Time/Life book and companion album, “To The Moon” that I loved as a kid, and do to this day. My mom was the head librarian at Danville Community College, and I used to go to work with her just to listen to it. 

    A few years ago, I bought my own copy, got a turntable I could make MP’s from and now it’s here in my iTunes library forever. 

    It’s a great history of the program from the Sputnik days to Apollo 11, with some awesome photography in the book.

    • #23
    • June 13, 2018 at 3:32 pm
    • 3 likes
  24. Member

    To answer the question – I think you could do a good film on the Challenger investigation. And, yes, Gemini is forgotten, and deserves some Hollywood treatment. Surely there are compelling stories there. A movie on the life and tragic loss of Gus Grissom would seem overdue.

    • #24
    • June 13, 2018 at 3:35 pm
    • 2 likes
  25. Coolidge

    Sleepywhiner (View Comment):

    And, yes, Gemini is forgotten, and deserves some Hollywood treatment. Surely there are compelling stories there.

    I agree. Everybody knows Mercury and Apollo, but in a lot of ways Gemini made more advances than either of those programs.

    Judging by the trailer, it does look like “First Man” will give some attention to Neil Armstrong’s Gemini 8 mission. Probably the closest any astronaut has ever come to dying in space.

     

    • #25
    • June 13, 2018 at 6:06 pm
    • 1 like
  26. Thatcher

    Just to take things off track- I would love to see a serious documentary on the potential of the Boeing X-20 Dyna-Soar program. Between Chuck Yeager’s autobiography and the scene in the book The Right Stuff where Joe Walker (I think?) argues with an astronaut that the X-15 was better than the Apollo program because “we actually fly the thing”, I always thought Sputnik panicked the US into doing something “quick and dirty”. We beat the Soviets but the result was the cancelation of an Air Force program that seemed well on its way. I’ve always loved the space program, but it seems after 50 years we are coming back to the starting point.

    That said, the Gemini program deserves some love- especially the first space walk, which seems to me crazier than walking on the moon.

    • #26
    • June 13, 2018 at 6:25 pm
    • 4 likes
  27. Coolidge

    I can’t wait to see this! I hope they present his laconicism correctly.

    • #27
    • June 13, 2018 at 9:41 pm
    • 1 like
  28. Coolidge

    FightinInPhilly (View Comment):
    I always thought Sputnik panicked the US into doing something “quick and dirty”. We beat the Soviets but the result was the cancelation of an Air Force program that seemed well on its way.

    That was Armstrong’s opinion as well. He was on the Dynosoar project at NACA and was disappointed that it was cancelled in order to support the Apollo missions.

    • #28
    • June 13, 2018 at 9:54 pm
    • 1 like
  29. Member

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I can’t wait to see this! I hope they present his laconicism correctly.

    I thought Tony Goldwyn did a great job with that in the From the Earth to the Moon series.

    • #29
    • June 14, 2018 at 12:01 am
    • 1 like
  30. Member

    They should make a feature film about Buzz Aldrin punching Bart Sibrel.

    • #30
    • June 14, 2018 at 1:58 am
    • 4 likes
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