Neil Armstrong's sons champion First Man at TIFF: Damien Chazelle 'got it right'
Speaking to a packed house Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Canadian premiere of the Ryan Gosling-starring First Man, Rick and Mark Armstrong gave the project their unwavering seal of approval amid right-wing backlash over Chazelle’s decision not to include a scene dramatizing their dad’s real-life planting of the American flag on the lunar surface.
“When they started this project, Damien and the screenwriter Josh Singer started with the only authorized biography that our dad ever participated in called First Man, and it’s a very heavy, dense book, but it’s full of detail, and that’s where they started,” Mark said of the film, which tells an intimate story of Neil’s complicated internal struggles and motivations ahead of the famed moon-bound mission after losing his two-year-old daughter, Karen, to complications stemming from a brain tumor. “They spent two or three years after that going deep, getting the details in between the chapters, in between the words, in between the paragraphs, and I’m here to tell you that they got it right. And we absolutely would not be here today if they hadn’t, so I’m really grateful to them.”
The Armstrong brothers previously released a statement defending Chazelle’s film after a wave of conservative figures — including Marco Rubio — criticized the project for not including a recreation of the iconic flag moment from the 1969 Apollo 11 endeavor. The pair noted the film is not “anti-American in the slightest” but rather a “very personal movie about our dad’s journey, seen through his eyes” that gets “the story behind the story” most people are already familiar with.
“This story is human, and it is universal. Of course, it celebrates an [American] achievement. It also celebrates an achievement ‘for all mankind,’ as it says on the plaque Neil and Buzz [Aldrin] left on the moon. It is a story about an ordinary man who makes profound sacrifices and suffers through intense loss in order to achieve the impossible,” the statement said. “Although Neil didn’t see himself that way, he was an American hero. He was also an engineer and a pilot, a father and a friend, a man who suffered privately through great tragedies with incredible grace. This is why, though there are numerous shots of the American flag on the moon, the filmmakers chose to focus on Neil looking back at the earth, his walk to Little West Crater, his unique, personal experience of completing this journey, a journey that has seen so many incredible highs and devastating lows.”
Chazelle, who also attended the premiere at Toronto’s Cinesphere IMAX theater, told the audience he was motivated by Neil’s internal complexity as a multi-faceted soul rather than merely rehashing his story as an overbearing portrait of American patriotism.
“Historically and creatively I wanted to look at how … something like [the moon landing] happened. I sensed it wouldn’t happen without great cost, but I wanted to find out what those [personal] costs were, and try not to sugar-coat that at all. In some ways that’s how that period of history has been sold to us in the past, with this veneer and glossy imagery that these were superheroes and it was kind of easy because they were so superheroic and everything worked, and that’s why we landed on the moon,” the La La Land helmer said. “I think it was actually more relatable, more interesting, and more inspiring to look at [them] as very ordinary people who were putting themselves truly in harm’s way, people who were making really tough calls … trying to peel back this success story and looking at the hard reality of it was the impulse behind a lot of the movie.”