First Man: Discussion with Singer and Hansen

My family was excited to see the film about Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. But as we emerged from the theatre in October, my husband commented:

“That wasn’t a feel good movie. That was a feel nothing movie.”

Despite the technical excellence of the film, I agreed that the overwhelming sense was of loss and isolation. Not being intimately familiar with Neil Armstrong, I chalked things up to 2018-era existential angst.

Yesterday I was given the chance to attend a screening of First Man at the National Air and Space Museum, with Q&A following the film with Armstrong biographer, Dr. James Hansen, and Academy Award-winning screen-writer of First Man, Josh Singer. Jeffrey Kluger, the author whose book inspired the film Apollo 13, rounded out the panel.

If you are a fan of history and space and film, First Man: The Annotated Screenplay is a fantastic look into all three topics.

Whether watching First Man for the first time or considering a return, here are a few things you really should know to properly understand the brilliance of the film created by Singer and director Damien Chazelle 1 based on Hansen’s book.

Armstrong was that distant in real life

Hansen interviewed Armstrong for 55 hours as part of the research process for his biography. He affirmed that the man was intensely private. Always polite, but loathe to talk openly about what things meant.

Hansen said he learned the most about Neil Armstrong by talking with key women in Neil’s life, including Neil’s first and second wives.

Janet left Neil in 1990

The film depicts the emerging strain on Janet due to Neil’s emotional unavailability. The film ends on a bleak emotional note, with the two spouses emotionally drained, unsmilingly touching the post-mission quarantine glass at the same spot from their separated rooms.

Because the film makers knew the toll the stress would eventually take on the marriage, they originally planned the final scene without even the touching through the quarantine glass. Janet Armstrong, seeing this, admitted that the seeds of the situation were there in 1969, but felt a complete absence of connection was not accurate. So the scene was shot as we see it, with Janet’s input.

Neil Undoubtedly Saved the Space Program

The film depicts the near-disaster of Gemini VIII, where the space capsule began to tumble at such a high rate of rotation that it nearly killed both Neil Armstrong and David Scott. Gemini VIII was NASA’s sixth manned space flight and represented the first in-flight system failure. Post-mission analysis confirmed that Armstrong and Scott had no causal role in the failure.

It is clear that deadly disaster was only averted because of Neil’s calm persistence in attempting to solve the problem. The same emotional compartmentalization that so marred Neil’s home life saved the space program.

Had Gemini VIII ended in deadly disaster, NASA could not have survived.

First Man is more accurate than a 1969-era telling would have been

There are numerous instances that were secret in 1969 – either because the individuals involved didn’t admit the event or the documents weren’t public.

Janet’s enraged confrontation with NASA officials when they turned off comms to her squawk box during Gemini VIII is one such instance. Though Claire Foy gives a great performance, those who were there say Janet was even more strong in her rage. Obviously such anger from an astronaut’s wife would not have been appropriate to admit in 1969, either for the wife or NASA.

The letter that was prepared for the President to read in case Armstrong and Aldrin became stranded on the moon was another instance that was unknown beyond a small circle. The speech was only discovered thirty years after the launch of Apollo 11.

A Critique

I had the chance to ask Hansen and Singer about the absence of faith from the film. They explained that this accurately expressed Neil Armstrong’s lack of faith in the Christian traditions of the era (he described himself as a deist). Hansen, Singer, and Kluger spoke of the earnest faith of other astronauts.

They explained that this film was true to Neil Armstrong’s point of view.

While I accept that I was wrong to think First Man was bleak because of 2018-era existential angst, I still think Singer and Chazelle missed an opportunity as they wrote and directed the screenplay. Had First Man been a novel told from only Neil’s point of view, his emotional palette would have appropriately dominated. But film is an “omniscient” medium, and should reflect more than the emotional situation of the main character.

Because they allowed Armstrong’s personal lack of overt religious faith to permeate the film, they missed (in my opinion) a chance to highlight how unusual Armstrong’s detacted affect really was. Armstrong comes off as merely the quietest of the quiet “Boy Scouts” who worked to realize President Kennedy’s dream of Americans reaching the moon. 2

There are two funerals which could have served to inject this religious chiaroscuro. The filmakers used the “Can you play with me?” request from Neil’s son to emphasize the private sorrow Neil experienced. But a minor thing like showing the mourners hugging or comforting one another would have further emphasized Neil’s self-inflicted isolation and other-ness from his community, which was a community of faith.

I found that this lack of era-appropriate religious expression took me out of the film and made me initially doubt what I now see as an extraordinarily accurate film.

Critique aside, First Man is a film that deserves to be watched again and again, if we wish to understand the private cost of the public success America celebrated in 1969.


  1. Damien Chazelle won an Academy Award for La La Land and was the driving force behind transforming Hansen’s biography into a film.
  2. In The Right Stuff, it is Gus Grissom who is portrayed as the slightly inappropriate astronaut, his pockets stuffed with items which would have been in space. In First Man, Buzz Aldrin is portrayed as the gauche astronaut who says things that are inappropriate, highlighting the silent sacrifice of all the others.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

7 thoughts on “First Man: Discussion with Singer and Hansen

  1. Another opportunity to show a religious angle was when Buzz Aldrin took communion while they were on the moon. Even if the story was only from Amrstrong’s point of view, he would have seen that with the tight conditions in the lunar module.

  2. Hi Eric,

    One of the panelists mentioned that, the communion set. The problem is that they’d already shown Aldrin to be a boorish jerk. So showing Aldrin doing the communion would have made a mockery of religion (as occurred when they showed a reporter asking about religion).

    The funerals were specifically where I would have expected expressions of compassion and faith that I did not see. This lack of faith in an expected place is what informed my initial impression that the film itself represented 2018-era angst.

  3. The scenes following up on the death of Elliot See did exactly what you asked for. The other astronauts were shown mourning together, and Armstrong runs away to be alone.

  4. Hi John,

    They were mourning, but there was nothing that suggested faith on the part of the other participants.

    Now, one challenge the movie makers faced was how to create tension when almost every viewer knows the Apollo 11 mission ends up succeeding. The soul-wracking encounters with death served to create tension.

  5. Many of the astronauts were religious people, but I doubt any of them thought of their program as a community of faith.

  6. It was interesting having a chance to watch the film a second time, knowing that I would have a chance to hear the screenwriter and biographer talk about the film. Since this was a second viewing for me, I knew the manner in which the plot would build and how the film ends. So I was looking for why I had been left with that initial impression of 2018 angst.

    For me, it was the lack of expressions of faith on the part of others in the funeral scenes that particularly contributed to the emotional flatness.

    I’m not sure if the background actors simply didn’t know how to portray faith or what. Again, it could have been as simple as showing the mourners at the Elliott See funeral embracing or talking to one another face to face while holding both hands. Instead we just saw a somber party of solitary individuals, with clueless kids running around.

    It’s as though someone forgot to add salt to an exquisite brioche. It bothered me. Perhaps it did not bother you.

    Whether or not the NASA community thought of themselves as a community of faith, I would counter that statistics inform us that people circa 1969 were much more likely to be involved in a faith tradition than are people in 2018. Singer wrote Spotlight, so he is undoubtedly sensitive to the way expressions of faith might be offensive to a modern audience. Damien Chazelle is the youngest individual to ever be awarded an Academy Award for directing, so perhaps on his part it was lack of experience with how mourners of faith interact at funerals.

    Or perhaps it is just that American cinematography is becoming mature enough to be comfortable with ending a film on an ambiguous and painful note.

    In part, my comment on this is informed by an exhibit of 19th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago. The exhibit looked at paintings that illuminated issues related to the Civil War. That’s when I learned that maple syrup was a sweetener seen as anti-slavery, given that cane sugar at the time was only possible because of slave labor in the Carribean. Another part of the exhibit showed paintings by the same artists of similar scenes before and after the start of the Civil War. The ante-bellum paintings were full of vibrant color. The post-bellum paintings were almost grey by comparison.

    I see First Man as an exquisite film. But like those post-bellum paintings, the palette is more muted and flat than I feel is either pleasing or accurate.

    Perhaps another way to skin the cat could have been information following the final scene, where on-screen signage tells of explicitly what Armstrong achieved, but how he resisted talking about it, followed by the information that his habits and personality eventually caused Janet to leave him. But such explicit telling, I know, is not seen as the highest form of art.

    On the other hand, such explicit post-movie information would have driven me to want to watch the film again that same weekend, would have prompted conversation with friends and family, and would have imbued the entire arc of the story with visceral meaning. Chazelle was able to do this with La La Land.

    Instead, we were left with a sense of “Huh?” that didn’t inspire me to return to the film or recommend it, until given the unique opportunity to see an IMAX showing with post-movie discussion with Singer and Hansen.

  7. That would have been quite something if Chazelle had ended First Man with a La La Land daydream. Janet sits down on the other side of the quarantine glass, then they do a quick rewind to the Armstrong family mourning the daughter’s death. Neil hugs his wife and children and cries with them. Unable to focus when flying, he accepts a ground assignment supporting test flights at Edwards. The loving, mutually supportive family spends lots of time together and grows to include four living children, all gathered around the TV with both parents as they watch Pete Conrad place the first human footprint on the moon. The spell breaks, Neil and Janet are back in the quarantine reception room, Janet stands to leave, and Neil nods a smile of acknowledgement of what could have been which Janet returns before walking out the door.

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