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'First Man': Step by 'small step' review of Neil Armstrong film trailer

June 11, 2018

– Houston, the "First Man" trailer has landed and with it a whirlwind of scenes depicting almost a decade of spaceflight history.

Universal Pictures on Friday (June 8) released the first teaser for director Damien Chazelle's upcoming feature film about the first man to walk on the moon, starring actor Ryan Gosling as the late Neil Armstrong. Though not billed as a biopic, "First Man" focuses on Armstrong, his personal life and his NASA career as a research test pilot and NASA astronaut between 1962 and 1969.

Eagle-eyed enthusiasts may have picked up on all of the spacecraft, people and settings featured in the two-and-a-half minute video, but for those who did not, or have yet to read "First Man," historian James Hansen's 2005 authorized biography of Armstrong on which the movie is based, here is a step-by-"small step" review of some of the trailer's key scenes.


Click here to enlarge and view video in a new, pop-up window.

The trailer opens with the dramatic launch of a Saturn V, the rocket that flew 24 astronauts on nine missions to the moon, including Apollo 11 crewmates Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins for the first lunar landing in July 1969. The spectators shown here include Armstrong (Gosling) and Aldrin (Corey Stoll), which hints to this being the Apollo 8 launch in December 1968. Armstrong and Aldrin were members of the Apollo 8 backup crew and were witnesses to the launch, which sent the first humans to orbit the moon.

In the trailer, the Saturn V clears the tower in about five seconds; in real life, it took twice that time as the massive rocket lumbered off the pad. The plume here also more closely resembles that of the space shuttle with its two solid rocket boosters, than the exhaust of the five F-1 engines that powered the first stage of the Saturn V.

From the launch, the trailer transitions to the first of several scenes with Armstrong's wife Janet (Claire Foy). Later clips also show their two sons, Mark and Rick. Chazelle has been quoted saying that he was drawn to "First Man" because the public only knows the astronaut, the "human himself is a little bit of an enigma." The trailer suggests that the film will be as much about Armstrong's private life as it will show his exploits in flight.

Armstrong became an astronaut in 1962 while the Mercury program was still underway. In this scene, we catch a glimpse of the gimbal rig, or multi-axis space test inertia facility, which simulated the tumble-type maneuvers that astronauts might encounter in space. "It is this thing that kind of sends you ass over tea kettle. [The astronauts] would only do it for maybe 20 minutes at a time, but in the movie, because we had to get a lot of shots, I was in it for like six to eight hours," Gosling told late night host Jimmy Kimmel in an interview on Friday (June 8).

On April 10, 1967, NASA's director of flight crew operations Deke Slayton convened a meeting where he told 18 astronauts, "The guys who are going to fly the first lunar missions are the guys in this room." Slayton then proceeded to lay out the steps of the program. "Only after we've mastered these tasks, do we consider trying to land on the moon," says Slayton (Kyle Chandler) in the trailer.

"We are going to have to start from scratch," says Slayton (Chandler) in the previous scene and the trailer takes that as a cue to jump back in Armstrong's career to before he became an astronaut. Here we see Armstrong (Gosling) at the controls of the X-15 rocket plane, flying as a NASA research test pilot. Armstrong flew the X-15 seven times between 1960 and 1962, reaching a maximum altitude of 207,500 feet.

A note about the audio in this scene: just after the X-15 drops away from its B-52 mothership, a bit of dialog can be heard from a different era of spaceflight: "Go at throttle up," and then "Roger, go at throttle up." This is one of the few times that the trailer incorporates archival material and here it is the unfortunate choice of the last audio before the loss of space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Despite Armstrong later serving on the commission that investigated the tragedy that claimed seven lives, the use of the audio is inappropriate and is presumably limited to the trailer and not included in the film itself.

Update (June 12): Universal has removed the Challenger audio from the trailer.

In addition to flying the X-15, Armstrong's years as a research test pilot also saw him help develop a "flying bedstead" to prepare its pilots to land on the moon. Later, Armstrong would fly the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) to train for his own mission. On May 6, 1968, though, a control problem famously led to Armstrong having to eject from the LLRV, as recreated here in "First Man."

It is not until more than a minute into the trailer that we get our first look at Armstrong (Gosling) as the public knows him best: dressed in his Apollo 11 spacesuit. The real-life Armstrong was assisted into his suit by equipment specialist Troy Stewart, who died earlier this year (it is not yet known who is portraying Stewart in this scene).

"We need to fail down here, so we don't fail up there," says Gosling as Armstrong. But no one wanted or expected to lose a crew while they were still on the launch pad. On Jan. 27, 1967, Apollo 1 crewmates Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died in a fire that broke out inside their spacecraft during a routine pre-launch test.

The vantage point depicted here is dramatic, but it shows the fire emanating from above the astronauts' seats. In reality, the best theory for the cause of the fire began with a short circuit sparking underneath the couches.

When the trailer finally shows Armstrong (Gosling) seated on board a spacecraft, it isn't inside an Apollo command module. Rather, it is for Armstrong's first spacelight, as command pilot of Gemini 8 in 1966. Armstrong and David Scott (Christopher Abbott) accomplished the first docking in space, linking up with an Agena target vehicle in Earth orbit.

As an aside, this might be the first realistic depiction of a Gemini mission in a major motion picture. Mercury and Apollo missions have been featured in films such as "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13," but the Gemini program has generally been overlooked by Hollywood, until now.

Speaking of "Apollo 13," this might be the best representation of Houston Mission Control since that 1995 film. In the context of the "First Man" trailer though, this might be during Gemini 8. The same room, with modifications, was later used for Apollo 11.

"I vonder vere Guenter Vendt." There he is! Actor Steve Coulter pops up as the pad leader who was the last face the astronauts saw before launch. "Here we go!" says Coulter as Wendt to Armstrong (Gosling) and Scott (Abbott) aboard Gemini 8.

In between various scenes of Armstrong (Gosling) and Scott (Abbott) flying aboard Gemini 8, the trailer inserts this shot — of the Apollo 11 launch. This is not CGI or a model; this is NASA archival footage from an engineering camera located at the base of the umbilical tower.

The trailer devotes two seconds to a series of three scenes from a house fire, including Janet Armstrong (Foy) clutching her two sons. This is presumably a recreation of the 1964 fire that badly damaged the Armstrongs' home in El Lago, a suburb of Houston. Armstrong ran twice into the fire to save Mark and Rick. He and Ed White (who lived next door) then fought back the flames with hoses until the local volunteer fire department arrived.

Judging by the layout of the room and the glass window separating them, this scene might be from after Armstrong (Gosling) returned from the moon and was held with his crewmates in quarantine for 21 days at the Lunar Receiving Lab in Houston. Armstrong entered quarantine before the Apollo 11 launch, too, but by then he was already at the Cape, which had different facilities.

Houston, we have a problem, maybe. Setting aside the roll (see the next scene), it is not clear what is being portrayed here. The only set of four engines that comes to mind are the Gemini spacecraft's retrorockets, but this rendering differs in some ways from their configuration.

About that roll; Armstrong and Scott encountered a serious issue on Gemini 8 that set their spacecraft spinning at an increasing rate, such that they risked blacking out, if not a worse fate. The trailer gives us a first look, both inside and out, of what Armstrong and Scott faced, as depicted in "First Man."

As the trailer reaches its end, we get a few quick glimpses of what the film's tagline describes as the "impossible journey." Here, the Apollo 11 command and service module is seen separating from the upper stage of the Saturn V. A subsequent scene shows the lunar module on its final approach to landing on the moon.

The trailer's final shot before the title screen puts the viewer in Armstrong's shoes, or lunar boots as it were. With his two arms outstretched before him, we get a first-person view of Armstrong reaching for the top rung of the ladder that will lead to his very famous small step.

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