MIGHTY MOVIES

'First Man' director wants to show the sacrifices that military families made as astronauts braved the unknown

A Navy SEAL interviews Oscar-Winning Director Damien Chazelle about the importance of the military families behind America's first moon landing, as depicted in the upcoming film 'First Man'

(Universal Pictures)

Three months ago, Navy SEAL and NASA Astronaut Chris Cassidy slogged through the dirt roads of Normandy with a 44lbs rucksack on his back. Captain Cassidy and several dozen other SEALs (myself included) had just swam 11 miles through the English channel to commemorate the pre-D-Day mission of the first Naval Commandos. The 11-mile swim / 25-mile ruck run on the 74th anniversary of D-Day had a purpose: to raise money for fallen SEALs and their families.

It was an act of service for those who had died in service.


Cassidy, who earned a Bronze Star in Afghanistan, sweated out this epic charity challenge in the middle of training for another kind of walk — one that will take place at 17,000 miles per hour, 400 kilometers above the earth's surface. If all goes well, Cassidy will return to space and conduct a spacewalk to make repairs on the International Space Station. But, in the midst of endless days of preparation and training, he took time to honor his military roots — a heritage he shares with a long line of astronauts before him. Captain Chris Cassidy said,

It's truly been an honor to have a role in our nation's manned space program. We have had astronauts and cosmonauts living continuously on the International Space Station for the last 18 years which has only been possible because of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. That history is also deeply intertwined with the military. Personally, I love how in both our nation's space program and military, laser focus on mission success is balanced with detailed planning and operational rick controls. It's also an amazing feeling to be among such motivated and talented people.

That heritage is one of the centerpieces of the new blockbuster film, First Man, featuring Ryan Gosling starring as NASA Astronaut Neil Armstrong. People know Armstrong as the man who walked on the moon; they often don't know that Armstrong was a decorated Navy fighter pilot and Korean War veteran.

Neil Armstrong in 1964, while in training to be an astronaut.

(NASA)

The film is largely focused on Armstrong's life and the mission to get to the moon — but it explores a theme familiar to military audiences: the challenge of maintaining a family while deploying to do dangerous work. The film depicts Armstrong's family and their sacrifice, particularly that of Armstrong's wife, Janet. And it shows scenes that any military family has faced: how to speak to your children about the danger of the mission; the enormous stress before the deployment; the uncertainty while your loved one is far away. All of this is shown with raw and real emotion.

What was true then and is true now is that service member families often bear a heavy and overlooked burden during times of conflict. While First Man is primarily a movie about the first moon walk, it's important to remember that that mission, and the space program in general, was the byproduct of a conflict: the Cold War and the tension between the USSR and the US. The frontlines of the early space race were the frontiers of space, and its foot soldiers were military test pilots who strapped themselves to rockets and ventured into the stratosphere in service of their country.

Apollo 11 astronauts with families, 1969

(Ralph Morse for LIFE)

I had an opportunity to speak with Academy Award-winning director Damien Chazelle (the director behind the smash-hit films La La Land and Whiplash) and ask him about these themes of the connection between military service and the space program:

1. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind 'First Man'

After I made Whiplash, I was approached by producers Wyck Godfrey, Isaac Klausner, and Marty Bowen about the idea of doing a movie on Neil Armstrong. I didn't know much about space travel and didn't know what my angle would be. But I started reading Jim Hansen's incredible book, First Man, and started to think of Neil's story as a story about the cost of great achievement — similar to what I had looked at in Whiplash, only on a much bigger canvas.

What was the toll that the mission to the moon took? I was awed by the sacrifice, the patriotism, the ambition, and the vision that made the impossible possible — and the reminder that it was human beings who did it, ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and overcoming daunting odds — and even great tragedy — to accomplish something for the ages.

The crewmen of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission leave the Kennedy Space Center's (KSC) Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) during the prelaunch countdown. Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, ride the special transport van over to Launch Complex 39A where their spacecraft awaited them. Liftoff was at 9:32 a.m.

(NASA)

2. What’s woven through the movie are themes of duty and sacrifice. And as a Navy veteran myself, I could identify not just with the astronauts (especially Neil, Navy pilot), but with their families and what they went through. Can you talk a bit about those themes and how they affected your work on this?

The family aspect was paramount — showing these famous events through the eyes of not just Neil, but his wife Janet and his sons, Rick and Mark. How did they all cope with the demands of the job? Funerals were a normal part of life. Two of Neil's closest friends died while he was in the program. Neil himself almost died several times. And yet, balanced with the danger and the risk, he and Janet also had to take out the trash, clean the pool, make breakfast for their kids. That combination of the intimate and the epic, and the selfless way Neil and Janet confronted all of it, was extraordinary to me.

But I also think it's worth remembering, as you note, that Neil had been in the Navy. He was someone who believed deeply in service for country. He risked his life in the Korean War. He became a test pilot to forward our understanding of aeronautics, to contribute to knowledge. He went to space to keep seeking those answers. This is someone who was not acting in his own self-interest, who was not seeking fame or fortune. This is a man who believed, in all aspects of his life, that his duty to the mission came first, and without that willingness to risk it all and to sacrifice it all I don't believe the moon landing ever would have happened.

3. Can you talk a bit about Janet Armstrong and her role?

Ryan and I were lucky enough to meet with Janet and spend time with her. She was an incredible woman, and the stories she told us and memories she shared with us were invaluable. Like Neil, Janet was tough — she had a grit to her that I think made her uniquely qualified for her role in the space program. It's worth remembering that astronaut wives like Janet played an enormous part in the overall endeavor of going to the moon: they were the ones to had to find the balance between space and home, between the demands of their husbands' work with the lives of their kids and the necessities of home. They had to do it all while putting on a smile for the cameras — even when they couldn't know for sure if their husbands would ever return from space. One of my greatest joys in making this movie was in watching Claire Foy embody Janet's spirit and resilience and pay tribute to such an amazing person.

The Apollo 11 crewmen, still under a 21-day quarantine, are greeted by their wives, Janet Armstrong, Patricia Collins, and Joan Aldrin.

(NASA)

4. There's a scene in the film where Neil Armstrong is talking to his boys about what's about to happen — the mission and the risks. Can you give us a sense of what you were thinking with that scene and what you wanted to convey?

That's a scene that many families across the country have their own version of: the mom or dad about to go off to work, and the knowledge that he or she may not come back. It again speaks to a willingness to sacrifice in the name of service that I find awe-inspiring. In this movie's case, the scene at the dinner table between Neil and Janet and their boys Rick and Mark was almost word-for-word what actually happened. Janet insisted to Neil he talk to his kids and explain to them what he was doing and what the risks were; much of the scene was taken verbatim from Rick and Mark Armstrong's recollections. It was a tremendously important scene for all of us — a moment where the characters have to come to a stop and confront the dangers of what they are doing, and what it all means.

5. The military and the space program have a long joint history. At the simplest, a lot of veterans became astronauts. The SEAL community, which I'm a part of, for example is proud of the fact that there are two astronauts currently in training who are SEALs. Did that joint history play into your research at all, or the end product?

It did, in several ways. First, I liked to think of the film as almost a war movie. The moon mission was initially a product of the Cold War, and the astronauts who risked their lives for their country were all former or current servicemen. The dangers were almost combat-like, too — this was not the glossy, glamorous, sleek-and-easy space travel I grew up seeing in movies. These capsules were like old tanks and submarines; the rockets carrying them out of the atmosphere were essentially converted missiles. The dangers were front and center — and, with them, the immense bravery required to face them.

This photograph of astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, was taken inside the Lunar Module (LM) while the LM rested on the lunar surface.

(NASA)

6. The film's story and title come from James Hansen's biography of Neil Armstrong, but I was curious: Did you have any other creative influences that helped you make this — books, films, etc?

Yes, many! As I alluded to, certain war movies were big inspirations: Saving Private Ryan, Paths of Glory, The Deer Hunter. Movies about submarines like Das Boot. I also read as many books on the subject matter as I could — one of my favorites was "Carrying the Fire" by Mike Collins, who flew with Neil on Apollo 11. "Deke!" by Deke Slayton and "Failure Is Not An Option" by Gene Kranz were also key. And, finally, documentaries! The archival material shot by NASA, much of which is compiled in incredible films like For All Mankind and Moonwalk One. Documentaries of the period like Salesman and Hospital and Gimme Shelter. An amazing documentary by Frederick Wiseman, about training at Vandenberg Air Force Base, called Missile. All of these taught and inspired me.

First Man, starring Ryan Gosling, arrives in theaters October 12, 2018.


Kaj Larsen is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, VICE, Huffington Post, and numerous other outlets. He also served as a US Navy SEAL earning the rank of Lieutenant Commander and completing multiple deployments in the Global War on Terrorism. His family member, Judith Resnick, was the second American woman in space and was killed on launch during the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion.