‘First Man’ screenwriter Josh Singer brings Neil Armstrong to life in surprising ways
The new film “First Man” tells the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s perilous 1969 journey to the moon and back. What makes this historical drama remarkable is that it doesn’t portray one of the 20th century’s greatest American heroes as some barrel-chested daredevil or adrenaline junky.
Instead, screenwriter and Santa Monica resident Josh Singer has crafted his on-screen Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) by piecing together what isn’t known about the late engineer and test pilot. The end result is a film that’s as much of a meditation on profound loss and grief as it is about scientific advancement.
Singer has already proven himself to be highly skilled when it comes to dramatizing world-changing historical events. He and co-writer Tom McCarthy won an Academy Award in 2015 for “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe newsroom’s efforts to uncover the child sex scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston and the Catholic Church at large. Last year he and co-writer Liz Hannah won acclaim for “The Post,” which examined the interpersonal struggles of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee while battling the Nixon administration over the Pentagon Papers.
Singer adapted his “First Man” screenplay from Pulitzer-nominee James R. Hansen’s book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.” While consulting with Hansen and writing the screenplay, Singer got stuck on the many still unanswered questions about Armstrong, who died in 2012.
“We were always focused on the things you don’t know, that are unfamiliar about Neil,” says Singer over the telephone during the film’s press tour. “Much of what is in the film is not known to the wider populous, which makes it more interesting to me.”
When the story begins, Armstrong and his wife Janet (played by Claire Foy) have a 2-year-old daughter who’s being treated for brain cancer.
“Neil starts off in a pretty rough spot as he’s in the process of losing a daughter and sort of closes off,” explains Singer. “As a way to find himself, he throws himself into project Gemini and, just as he starts to gain his footing again, he loses his closest friend in the program. Two weeks later, he has to go up on his own mission where he almost dies. So he goes to an even more closed-off place than when we saw him at the beginning of the film. In some ways he has to close himself off in order to get to the moon.”
Armstrong’s emotional distance took its toll on his family. One of the most poignant scenes in the film takes place on the eve of his dangerous moon mission. By now the Armstrongs have two boys, and it’s Janet that urges her stoic husband to prepare them for the worst. That forces the astronaut into a difficult conversation, one that Singer can relate to as a father.
“I have a 2-year-old now. We watch a lot of ‘Daniel Tiger’ together, and Daniel Tiger says parents always come back,” says Singer. “I was afraid of flying, then worked on this movie and got a lot less afraid of flying, and now I’m afraid of flying again because every time I get on a plane, I have a terror thinking, ‘What if I don’t come back? What if something happens?’ Because I’m selling my son that fiction on a regular basis — that parents always come back. And what I love about this moment in the movie is that these kids are old enough to understand. Neil was an engineer, and he can’t look them in the eye and say parents always come back. He’s got to say something different, and in facing up to that with them he has to face up to it for himself.”
Another poignant scene in the film comes when Armstrong has made it to the lunar surface.
“All of his activities were planned out, but he took a jaunt to the Little West Crater and had a moment there,” says Singer. “We wanted to play with that. It’s where Jim [Hansen, the biographer] thought he might have left something.”
NASA has meticulously documented all of the objects that other astronauts have left on the surface of the moon — American flags, golf balls, a family photograph — but it’s not clear what, if anything, Armstrong left there, due to the mission’s manifest mysteriously going missing.
Singer makes his best guess as to what a man like Armstrong, having suffered so much loss, might have left on the moon to endure the ages. You’ll have to see the film to find out.
“First Man,” begins screening in local theaters on Thursday, Oct. 11.