It’s not as if the story of NASA’s early days hasn’t been told before. From The Right Stuff to the excellent “From the Earth to the Moon” miniseries to the recent Hidden Figures, the heady era when humanity rose to the challenge Pres. Kennedy laid out to extend our reach to the stars is ground that’s been covered before.
Joining those ranks is this week’s First Man. Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in a story that follows him as he moves toward the day when he’s given the opportunity to be the first man to walk on the moon. Along the way he must confront his own fears, face the dangers inherent in breaking new ground and comfort his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and sons as well. The movie reteams Gosling with director Damien Chazelle.
“Experience the impossible mission to the moon” is the value proposition offered on the first poster, which shows Armstrong in his helmet and suit, the orange and red of the fiery rocket he and the others ride reflected on the glass. The second takes a broader perspective, showing a massive black plume of smoke rising toward the clouds, a bright orange spot at the top as the rocket ascends.
Armstrong’s empty flight suit is the main element on the third poster while the final one-sheet uses a similar image as the first, of Armstrong’s helmet melding into the moon and his face striking a reflective pose.
The first trailer does everything it can to reinforce the stakes of what Armstrong and the other early astronauts were trying to do. It’s filled with people asking him to be careful, explaining how difficult, dangerous and unprecedented the mission is, how much everyone is coming at it from a pretty negative point of view and more. Basically it’s focused on worst case scenarios, which is the opposite of most movies about the space program that focus on hope and the rush of exploration. It becomes a bit heavy-handed at times, but still works as a big-scale drama.
All that being said, it also kind of feels like a movie about Armstrong at this point is almost an answer to Hidden Figures, an attempt to reclaim the early days of NASA for white men. I’m not accusing the filmmakers of having that as their agenda, just that instead of Figures opening up the door to more stories about those who have been largely ignored in the numerous retellings of this era we get something very familiar.
Just before the movie’s debut at the Venice Film Festival in late August the second trailer was released. It carries the same general tone and structure as the first, showing how Armstrong is selected for the mission and how he handles that responsibility. The drama at home is just as strong as what’s happening at NASA as time marches on toward launch. What’s most striking about the trailer is that it presents Gosling as giving yet another nearly silent performance in a role as a stoic man who does what’s needed while still remaining sensitive to those around him. He barely has any dialogue, so everything is dependent on him looking determined but caring.
A third trailer from late September continued to display a deeply moving story of the early days of manned space exploration, once more eschewing actual dialogue in favor of narration culled from speeches by John F. Kennedy.
Online and Social
The official website for the movie features all the usual content, from the trailers to a stills gallery and so on. The one notable addition is the “AR Experience,” which offers the user a unique movie-themed experience when you load the website on your phone and point the camera at the moon.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Online ads that used the key art of Gosling as Armstrong, the outline of the moon forming the barrier of his helmet, started showing up at the time of the Venice Film Festival, driving traffic to the movie’s official website. At about the same time the first TV spot was released that showed the same kind of drama as the trailer while inviting audiences to come see for themselves what it was like to break this ground. Another used similar footage while listing the attributes necessary to put yourself in harms’ way as Armstrong did. Those were both also used as social media ads.
In late July a special preview was run exclusively before IMAX screenings of Mission: Impossible – Fallout. That preview was teased ahead of time. IMAX later ran its own TV spots that continued emphasizing the big story being told.
Media and Publicity
The footage featuring Gosling that Universal brought to CinemaCon to start building some buzz unfortunately seemed to underwhelm the media in attendance. A bit later both Chazelle and Gosling spoke about the story and characters alongside the revealing of a first still from the movie.
Around the time the first trailer was released Gosling showed up on “Kimmel” to do an interview where both he and the host were dressed in old-school spacesuits and sitting in a pretend capsule.
It was also announced as the opening night film for the Venice Film Festival, where Gosling and Chazelle complimented each other and talked about why they’ve repeatedly worked with each other. The movie garnered strong positive reactions from that initial screening.
The movie was announced as one of those screening – in IMAX – at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shortly thereafter another new photo was released along with comments from Gosling and Chazelle. It would then go on to also screen at Telluride.
There was an extensive cover story profile of Chazelle that covered this movie, his career to date, his collaborations with Gosling and more. Shortly after that Foy was interviewed about how she got involved with the movie, what she found most difficult about the story and more.
Because we live in the stupidest timeline, the movie’s festival screenings became a flashpoint for right wing pundits like Marco Rubio and the drones at Fox News because it reportedly didn’t include a shot of Armstrong planting an American flag on the moon. It got to the point that not only did Chazelle and Gosling feel the need to respond and clarify the intent behind that omission but so did Armstrong’s own sons.
That topic came up again in interviews during Toronto, where Stoll also shared what advice he got from the real life Aldrin. Chazelle later spoke about how he wanted to present the “normal” side of the initial astronauts that helped expand mankind’s reach.
A featurette released in late September had actual former astronauts talking about just how groundbreaking and inspiring the early Apollo missions were to them and the world.
The first clip shared a moment from a mission orbiting the moon where a technical problem creates a moment of dramatic tension for Armstrong and now the audience. That clip was preceded by a critical quote encouraging people to see the movie in IMAX. It was followed by an exclusive featurette on the people who helped make space travel possible and a promotional appeal for the big format by Gosling himself.
The actor showed up on “Kimmel” to talk about the movie and space food and more. He was also interviewed about the approval he got from Armstrong’s sons and how important that was to him. The whole primary cast and crew discussed the movie and the real life events that inspired it.
A private screening for friends of the filmmakers preceded the planned premiere in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, an event that allowed the cast and crew to talk about the themes of the movie and its characters one more time.
I get what Universal is going for here and can’t fault them for it. They want to make a dramatic story of man going to the moon for this generation and want someone like Gosling to present a warts-and-all portrait of Armstrong where he’s not a super hero, just someone doing his best to do his job.
But…we know this story. Even if it has some new shading and is a visual marvel, we know what happens here. There’s no new ground being broken or understanding being achieved, at least not based on what we’ve seen in the campaign. Yes, Gosling looks great, but that’s not new either. And why why why are we continuing to make movies where actresses like Foy are asked to stand in the background and be the supportive wife while the man gets the narrative arc?
That’s where the campaign falls flat to me, in not presenting anything new or interesting or even presenting it in a unique way. It’s all material we’ve seen before and no amount of trading off the Gosling/Chazelle reteaming can get me past that.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
Regal Cinemas and Universal partnered on a program to give free movie tickets to 14,000 current and veteran members of the U.S. military.
Gosling is the cover story for the recent issue of GQ, including an extensive interview about this movie and his whole career.
An exclusive IMAX featurette had Chazelle and others involved in the filmmaking talking about shooting the movie in the wide format in order to tell the big-scale story.
Olivia Hamilton, who plays Pat White in the movie and who’s married to Chazelle, made an appearance on “Kimmel” to talk about her burgeoning career.