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'First Man' Shows Sacrifice, Risk of Apollo 11 Mission


FILE - Claire Foy and Ryan Gosling attend the "First Man" premiere at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, Oct. 4, 2018.

On July 20, 1969, the world was watching as a grainy black and white TV image showed astronaut Neil Armstrong step onto the moon and plant an American flag on its powdery surface.

Damian Chazelle's biopic First Man follows the life of Armstrong, chronicling his courage, spirit of adventure and razor-sharp focus under pressure that paved the way for the historic Apollo 11 space mission.

Based on James Hansen's biography First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, the film shows the years of comradeship, commitment and personal sacrifice that galvanized the American spirit and awed the world.

Damian Chazelle's biopic First Man follows the life of Neil Armstrong as he prepares for the historic Apollo 11 space mission. (Image courtesy of Universal)
Damian Chazelle's biopic First Man follows the life of Neil Armstrong as he prepares for the historic Apollo 11 space mission. (Image courtesy of Universal)

The film includes President John F. Kennedy's historic 1961 speech, in which he presented America's decision to go to the moon. "These are extraordinary times," the young president declared. "And we face an extraordinary challenge. I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Apollo 11's stupendous moon landing is the climactic moment of Chazelle's taut, almost two-and-a-half-hour drama. Using sound, music and close-up images, the filmmaker lets the audience get a feel for the grueling training, fatal technical failures, and personal sacrifices — all leading up to man's first step on the lunar surface.

Ryan Gosling portrays Armstrong, who leads the mission while reeling from the loss of his daughter, and as a husband and father grappling with the risks of space travel.

Claire Foy plays Janet Armstrong as a tough, cool-headed supporting wife coming to terms with the fact that her husband may not come back. According to the film, NASA had prepared an obituary for the crew before the launch. Aware of the risks, a taciturn Neil Armstrong was hoping to slip quietly away from home, but his wife confronts him, demanding he wake up their two sons for a proper goodbye and to tell them that he may not return.

During the film's premiere at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, Gosling said he felt awed by the iconic memorabilia of aviation and space exploration surrounding him. "I was so excited when they picked here to have the premiere. It seemed like such a perfect place to do it. It's my first time here and I hope I get a chance to see them."

Foy was as awed to see the actual shuttles, uniforms and other memorabilia that were reconstructed for the film. "It was a firsthand experience of what these missions were for these men and these families," she said.

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During the premiere, Chazelle, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, told VOA that his goal was to paint an intimate portrait of the astronauts and, in particular, of Armstrong as they prepared for the mission. "For me it was about stripping away the mythology and looking at these ordinary human beings throughout these extraordinary circumstances, sacrificing everything, putting their lives on the line, and giving up so much, so we can benefit from living in a world where we know humans have that potential," he said.

Chazelle is known for his emphasis on sound and music, evident in his award-winning films Whiplash and La La Land. The musical score for First Man, by his longtime collaborator, Academy Award-winner Justin Hurwitz, conveys the excitement of the American achievement of the Apollo 11 mission and the heady days surrounding it.

"Certainly, sound and music were both instrumental at this movie. We wanted you, the audience, to feel that you had never been to space quite this way before, and also find a way to link space to the home front. To make this not only about the moon but also about those intimate moments between husband and wife, between father and son, between parents and their children, because at the end of the day, this is what it was at its core. So we want the music to help remind you of that," he said.

There were critics, however.

In a tweet, Senator Ted Cruz criticized the filmmaker for omitting the historic moment when Armstrong plants the American flag on the surface of the moon. "Really sad: Hollywood erases American flag from moon landing. This is wrong, and consistent with Leftists' disrespecting the flag & denying American exceptionalism," Cruz said on Twitter.

Chazelle responded that the decision not to depict that historic scene was purely aesthetic, focusing instead on Armstrong's inner emotions in such a paramount moment, while we see the flag in the distance and the world looking on.

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