NASA Space Historian: 'First Man' Is "Not a Movie About the Moon Landing"

There are no spoilers in First Man, Damien Chazelle’s breathtaking new entry into the Oscar race. Neil Armstrong makes it to the moon during Apollo 11, after a series of tragic accidents that imbue his mission with gravity and dread. But we already knew all that. What most of us don’t know going in is who Neil Armstrong was.

But John Logsdon, Ph.D., the world’s foremost space policy expert, whose 50-year career spans most of NASA’s 60-year existence, did know Armstrong. As Logsdon tells Inverse, First Man will show the world what the legendary pilot was like — and then get to all that stuff about the moon.

“Well, first of all, it’s not a movie about the moon landing,” Logsdon says. “It’s a movie about Neil Armstrong, which culminates in the moon landing.”

First Man’s Armstrong is cool and emotionally detached: Ideal in space but not on Earth, where his daughter has died and his wife and two sons demand to know whether he will ever come home. This portrayal is aligned with what both Logsdon remembers and what NASA insiders noted in the ‘60s, though perhaps not with the image the American public saw or wanted to see.

"Well, first of all, it’s not a movie about the moon landing. It’s a movie about Neil Armstrong, which culminates in the moon landing.

“He will come across in the movie as rather modest, reticent, not an astronaut with the ‘right stuff’ kind of bravado,” says Logsdon. “He will say, I think in the movie, but he did in life, that he was just the tip of a 400,000-person iceberg.” The new Penguin Book of Outer Space Exploration, which Logsdon edited, includes a memo, written for president Richard Nixon by NASA astronaut Frank Borman and dated July 14, 1969, detailing some background information about the crew of Apollo 11. Describing Commander Neil Armstrong, Borman wrote:

Quiet, perceptive, thoroughly decent man, whose interests still turn to flying. Has bought interest in both a glider and an airplane, Follows the stock market actively. A little reserved, but when get to know him, he has a very warm personality.

Interestingly, the same memo noted that Armstrong’s wife Jan, portrayed in First Man by Claire Foy, was “Quite composed and very factual.”

Jan Armstrong, played here by Claire Foy, was "quite composed and very factual."

Screenshot via YouTube/Universal Pictures

Unveiling how someone so immensely talented as Armstrong could be so self-effacing is what makes First Man so compelling, especially in a world where touting one’s own successes seems to be a valid currency.

“Armstong was a super pilot,” says Logsdon, “and he used his piloting skills to actually do the last few seconds of the moon landing. Otherwise it might have failed.” And yet neither Logsdon, nor Armstrong, seem to remember any of the moon landing hingeing on the capacity of a single man.

“We did something great,” says Logsdon. “But we did it great, not with superman, but with people doing the best job they could with the abilities they had.”

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