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How accurate is 'First Man?' According to Neil Armstrong's son, it's almost perfect

Posted: 1:06 AM, Oct 18, 2018
Updated: 2018-10-18 05:51:39Z
How accurate is 'First Man?' We asked the expert

You can watch our complete 30-minute interview with Mark Armstrong in the player above.

Media portrayals of Neil Armstrong, who in 1969 became the first human being to set foot on the Moon, haven't always been accurate.

That's according to someone who should know: His son, Cincinnati resident Mark Armstrong, who consulted on the latest and -- he believes -- most true-to-life depiction of his father's journey.

Armstrong described "First Man," starring Ryan Gosling as his father and directed by Damien Chazelle of "La La Land" fame, as a film that captured the father he knew instead of the dual-sided recluse and icon that existed in much of post-landing popular culture.

"He was a quiet guy; he could be intense," Mark said. "He could also be playful. He had a great sense of humor, a dry wit."

Mark's wife, Wendy, sent a piece of proof: A yellowed photo of Gemini 8 crew members posing in non-regulation headgear, including Neil Armstrong himself wearing an upturned work light at a jaunty angle. 

That 1966 mission -- the first in which Armstrong would actually visit outer space after watching Gemini 5 from the ground -- went badly wrong at the end when the Gemini spacecraft's thrusters malfunctioned. The hiccup sent the vessel tumbling through space and could have cost its crew members their lives if not for Armstrong's quick intervention, according to fellow astronaut David Scott in a PBS interview .

Mark Armstrong said he and his brother, Eric, never fully grasped the danger involved in space flight as children. When their father announced he would go to the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, it seemed like business as usual.

"We just remember having this conversation where dad says he's going on this flight and thought they had about a 50 percent chance of landing, but he felt confident in his spacecraft," Armstrong said. "When we walked way from that meeting, neither my brother nor I felt worried. Mom must have been terrified, but she hid it from us."

That interaction made it into "First Man" after he and his brother told director Chazelle about it, he said, as did scene of their family watching Apollo 11 launch from the ground.

Armstrong said he appreciated Chazelle's focus on preserving the visceral experience of spaceflight -- the cramped cockpit, the bumpy launch, the claustrophobic interior of a spacesuit -- and emphasizing the difficulty of his father's historic mission. 

To him, footprints on the moon are a miracle brought into existence by an even bigger one: The cooperation of thousands of scientists, engineers and other NASA workers who committed themselves to achieving something that had never been done before.

"If you take 400,000 people or more and you give ‘em a shared common vision and they all work together, great things can happen," he said. "We've done if before, and I think we can do it again. If there's anything I want people to take away, it's that. Let's look at the past, and let's remember what we were able to accomplish together, and let's use that as a model for the future."

So, it's an accurate portrayal of the mission. But would Neil Armstrong have liked it?

His son thinks he would have. 

Because of his military background, Mark said, Neil had an eye for technical details in movies. If a film showed one type of plane in the air and followed it with a B-roll close-up of another model's landing gear, he would know. War movies and -- obviously -- space movies were particularly prone to immersion-breaking errors. 

No-one could nitpick a science fiction movie like an astronaut.

"It would just destroy his ability to enjoy the movie," Mark said. 

"First Man," however, should please the detail-oriented and subject-matter-fluent in the audience, he said. 

And what about the controversy about the film not featuring the iconic scene of Armstrong planting an American flag on the Moon? Pre-release snippets from the its premiere at the Venice Film Festival made "First Man" a political flashpoint before it was released, prompting President Donald Trump and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio to accuse it of being insufficiently patriotic. 

"It's just not true," Mark Armstrong said. "This is the most patriotic movie I think I've ever seen."

It includes celebrations of the United States aplenty, the hoisting of other American flags and shots of the iconic lunar flag near the landing flight. As Armstrong argued and critics tend to agree , the decision to exclude the exact moment where steel met moondust is simply a product of the Chazelle's decision to prioritize intimacy over iconography.

Instead of focusing on that moment, the moonwalk scene focuses on another that, in the film, means very little to mankind and everything to the man who became our species' ambassador to the galaxy.

No spoilers here, but those who have seen the movie will likely have the same question: Did it really happen?

Mark Armstrong doesn't know. 

"There are a number of minutes, close to 10 minutes, where Dad wasn't on the comms," he said. "He wasn't reporting anything, and he did walk over to Little West crater. 

"The only thing I can say is, maybe one day we can go back there and see what we find."