Book review–First Man script reveals the struggles of adapting historical events to the screen

Review by C.J. Bunce

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

— From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

It isn’t enough to tell us what a man did.  You’ve got to tell us who he was.

— From Citizen Kane

The battle between these two ideas becomes the screenwriter’s dilemma, particularly for a historical drama recounting actual documented events.  First, there are stories of famous people and events that touch so many that the details become less important than the mythology.  Whether peppered with embellishment and puffery, it’s what the multitudes think of as the hero.  Next, there is the desire to use the archival record to fill in all the details you know, to get as much of the story as technically accurate as possible.  For these movies, the detail often distorts the impact of the story or event, minimizing what makes the actions of a man or woman or event so historic or triumphant.  And that’s the struggle evident in First Man: The Annotated Screenplay, a new book that includes the consolidated draft script of the new film chronicling astronaut Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969.

The beauty of the book is the full disclosure of the thoughts of two people, the screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post, The Fifth Estate, Fringe), and James R. Hansen, the historian and author of the only biography of Neil Armstrong authorized by Armstrong, First Man: the Life of Neil Armstrong.  Fans of NASA, of the history of spaceflight, science and technology will appreciate so many scenes that include verbatim text from the actual events.  For researchers and enthusiasts alike, Singer and Hansen include numerous reference citations showing the source of these scenes.  Yet even the bulk of these were edited for time and the needs of telling Singer’s story.  As revealed by both Singer and Hansen, the embellishments filling in the story between these sequences are many, so many that no scene seems to exclude artistic license by Singer–license that Singer freely acknowledges and defends as sincerely as someone defending a finely researched graduate thesis.  The scenes may be well-researched, educated, and heavily vetted speculation, but they aren’t reality.

Is it relevant, and does the final script reflect something of the aura missing from the space race and Moonshot that neither the director (born in 1985) nor the screen writer (born in 1972) were yet alive to witness?  Does the difference come down to the creative visions behind these movies, and established space race classics: bestselling author Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff that became the box office and critical hit The Right Stuff (directed by Philip Kaufman, who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark), and the first-hand account by Jim Lovell in his book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, that became the box office and critical hit Apollo 13 (directed by popular filmmaker Ron Howard)?

These preview pages show the kind of access readers will get to the creative process of a major motion picture screenplay, including revealing deleted scenes through highlight marker edits (which are much easier to distinguish in the print version):

In an afterword, Neil’s children Rick and Mark said their father had stated his own recollection of some events weren’t “exactly the way they were printed” in Hansen’s biography.  As director Damien Chazelle (La La Land, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Whiplash) says in his foreword to the book, “To be honest, I didn’t know much about Neil Armstrong or the Moon mission before starting to work on First Man.”  So the movie was created by someone who, unlike many millions born before or after Apollo 11, was not completely enamored with Neil Armstrong and his mission, and if they didn’t witness it on television, they marveled at the recordings of the event over the years on television or in books.  So Chazelle’s mission as he saw it was bringing Armstrong, the hero, down to Earth.  Was he successful?  That’s up to audiences to decide.

For my part as a reader and life-long astronomy enthusiast, one element always gripped me most about the mission:  Michael Collins, who had to stay with the orbiter as Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin went to the surface.  Collins couldn’t have gotten closer to the Moon than he did and yet he didn’t get that final step.  What kind of personality did he have and what was it like to be truly alone like that for the first time for anyone in history?  Yet Collins and the universally likeable Buzz Aldrin are but minor characters on the voyage in the script.  Why single out Armstrong when all involved and even he admitted he was only one of hundreds of thousands of people dedicated to a successful mission?  That answer is easy: because he was Neil Armstrong.  But why did it take nearly 50 years to get a major motion picture about him or the mission made?  Hopefully this is only the first to cover the subject matter.

Whatever you think of the film, or its vision, the annotated screenplay is an incredible resource for both screenplay writers–especially anyone adapting other source material–and astronomy fans.  For releasing such an insider’s look, Singer should be praised.  The open and honest access to his process is refreshing and educational.

First Man, the movie, is still in general release in some theaters nationwide.  First Man: The Annotated Screenplay is available now here at Amazon from publisher Titan Books.


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