The stunning way First Man uses IMAX to get inside Neil Armstrong’s head

First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic from Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle, is full of searing images that I can’t shake from my mind. The film is a thrilling account of the space race from the eyes of its most famous figure, highlighted by heart-pounding scenes of spaceflight. After watching it on a 100-foot IMAX screen, I can’t imagine seeing it any other way.

For almost all of First Man’s 138-minute runtime, however, the majority of that gigantic screen lay blank. Chazelle only used IMAX cameras to film the scenes set on the moon, and that climactic segment of the movie lasts for what felt like five minutes. So why, you may ask, is it worth finding a true IMAX screen to see this film?

In fact, it is the extreme contrasts — not just in time or aspect ratio, but in film stock and cinematography — that make the brief IMAX sequence in First Man so incredibly effective. In an era in which Hollywood is continuing to increase its use of IMAX cameras in an attempt to attract theatergoers, Chazelle’s less-is-more approach pays off beautifully.

[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for First Man.]

To the moon

Josh Singer’s screenplay for First Man, based on James R. Hansen’s authorized biography of the same name, tells Armstrong’s story in a straightforward, chronological fashion. It skips ahead between key milestones (and setbacks) in the space race and in Armstrong’s life. The film opens in 1962 with his daughter’s death, and concludes not long after Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 astronauts return from the moon.

All of that is to say that the actual moon landing occurs very late in First Man — about two hours in. The film does not spend much time on the lunar surface before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin pack up and lift off, heading back toward the command module, which Michael Collins piloted in lunar orbit.

First Man was shot on a variety of film stocks, including 16mm, 35mm and IMAX 65mm. The entirety of the movie up until Armstrong climbs out of the lunar module, and the denouement of the film after he and Aldrin leave the moon, plays out in the “scope” aspect ratio of 2.39:1.

If you’re unfamiliar with movie aspect ratios, there are two common standards these days: 2.39:1 is called “scope” and is typically used in genres like action and sci-fi for an epic, big-screen feel, while 1.85:1, known as “flat,” is better suited to less intense fare such as comedy. Scope is a very wide image; it doesn’t afford much vertical space to a director. (For Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg reportedly chose the taller flat aspect ratio in favor of scope because he wanted to be able to fit humans and dinosaurs into the frame together, so as to illustrate the size difference)

Filmmakers often employ the scope aspect ratio to convey the sweeping grandeur of a cinematic spectacle — a perfect choice to capture the immense scale of spaceships traversing the vast expanse of the stars. (Apollo 13, Gravity, The Martian and all the Star Wars movies were shot in scope.) But Chazelle and his director of photography, Linus Sandgren, flipped the format on its head when they filmed First Man.

There are very few wide shots of spaceflight in First Man, which seems like a curious decision until you realize what Chazelle and Sandgren were going for with the end. Instead, the film primarily uses extreme close-ups of the astronauts themselves, and of the interiors of the aircraft and spacecraft they were piloting. The effect is claustrophobia-inducing, conveying not just an idea of how cramped these vessels were, but an intense impression of the extraordinary nature of spaceflight.

First Man - close-up of Neil Armstrong’s face when he’s strapped into the Apollo 11 spacecraft
DreamWorks Pictures/Universal Pictures

You see Ryan Gosling’s face contort and vibrate inside Armstrong’s helmet; you see the camera shake as it tries futilely to maintain focus on the ship’s instrumentation; you hear the entire spacecraft rattle as it strains to slip the surly bonds of Earth. I keep thinking back to the moment of liftoff for Apollo 11, because it’s one of my favorite shots: The first-person camera is yanked backward as the Saturn V — five decades later, still the most powerful rocket ever made — launches, and G-forces flatten the astronauts into their seats.

You know that these men spent years training for this mission, and that literal rocket scientists engineered the spacecraft to the best of their ability, but the cinematography in First Man makes it feel like NASA was sending daredevils to the moon in a ramshackle flying machine. (Which it kind of was.)

Sea of Tranquility

All of that vanishes in an instant on the moon, in First Man’s most unforgettable shot. When Armstrong and Aldrin open the hatch of the lunar module, the camera moves out the door as the film’s matte opens up to the full IMAX aspect ratio of 1.43:1 — and a vista of the moon fills the entire screen from top to bottom. You can see the sequence in a featurette that IMAX released online prior to the movie’s debut, but it simply cannot and does not compare to watching it unfold on a true IMAX screen. (In the much less impressive IMAX Digital format, which is, sadly, what you get in the vast majority of theaters advertising IMAX screenings, the image only opens up to 1.9:1 — not even as tall as the flat aspect ratio.)

In true IMAX, the moment was literally breathtaking for me. The gray dust of the lunar surface stretched all the way to the bottom of the screen, but the inky blackness of space above it was essentially indistinguishable from the spot above the image where a black bar had been sitting for the previous two hours. This juxtaposition of scope footage and IMAX footage in First Man, along with the way the sound cuts out when the camera exits the lunar module, brilliantly imparts a sense of stepping out onto an alien world; you feel as if you’re Armstrong himself, taking it all in.

Armstrong and Aldrin explore the moon, collecting samples from the surface for scientists back on Earth to analyze. But Armstrong also has a more personal mission — and this is another way in which Chazelle uses IMAX for a powerful storytelling purpose (albeit with some heavy creative license).

First Man - Neil Armstrong holding his daughter, Karen Armstrong
DreamWorks Pictures/Universal Pictures

Gosling plays Armstrong as a stoic, aloof engineer with a steadfast focus on the mission. But the film also makes room for a few moments in which he lets himself grieve after the death of his daughter, Karen Armstrong, at age 2 from a brain tumor. He’s haunted by visions of the little time he was able to spend with her, and in a moving scene on the moon, those thoughts come flowing back into his mind.

We see Armstrong’s daughter wearing a bracelet with tiny blocks spelling out her name, and at one point in First Man, he stows it in a drawer. As Armstrong walks toward a crater on the moon, it is revealed that he’s holding that very same bracelet. Then the movie cuts to grainy footage of him playing with Karen — memories of a girl who would’ve been 10 by the time of the moon landing — as he drops the memento into the crater.

The scene has no basis in fact; Armstrong did no such thing, as far as anyone knows, and he died in 2012, so no one can ask him now. But either way, it’s the most emotional scene in First Man — all the more so because the Armstrong family’s home movies fill the entire IMAX screen, just as he was consumed by thoughts of his daughter.

Less is more

Chazelle’s use of IMAX in First Man is masterful. The movie features only a few minutes of IMAX footage, but confining it to the moon allows Chazelle and cinematographer Sandgren to deploy it all in one continuous segment. That’s a stark contrast to the way IMAX has been used in other Hollywood films over the past decade.

Directors such as Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay and Brad Bird have made films in which, by necessity, they interspersed standard film or digital footage with scenes shot using IMAX cameras. Those directors, along with movie studios and the IMAX Corp. itself, have (understandably) tended to promote the movies in question by focusing on the sheer amount of IMAX footage in the final cut — and they’ve ramped up the use of the large-format film stock over time. Nolan went from a total of 28 minutes of IMAX footage in 2008’s The Dark Knight to 79 minutes in 2017’s Dunkirk.

I will never forget seeing Dunkirk in true IMAX: The film opens with leaflets raining from the sky, and I swear, for a brief moment, I thought that actual flyers were falling from the ceiling of the theater. Chazelle’s application of IMAX in First Man is much more circumscribed, but remarkably, it may be even more impactful there than in that other depiction of a famous historical event.

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