Spoilers for First Man follow below, specifically with regards to the film’s ending. Do not read further until you’ve seen the film.
One may think it’s impossible to spoil a movie like First Man, which chronicles the true story of Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts’ years-long journey to get to the moon, but one would technically be wrong. With this film, Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) aimed to tell the story you don’t know about Neil Armstrong. To give you a peek inside what it was really like to be among this small group of individuals, flirting with death every single day to perform a near-impossible task. On top of all of that, Armstrong was still reeling from the death of his young daughter Karen, who passed at the age of two due to cancer.
Indeed, in many ways First Man is a film about death, and we watch as Armstrong (played terrifically by Ryan Gosling) struggles to work through his grief while also, you know, trying to get to the moon.
The First Man ending raises some curious questions, as it aims to provide another look at something you don’t know about the moon landing. The film posits that Armstrong brought Karen’s bracelet with him to the moon, and he dropped it in a crater during an intimate moment away from Buzz Aldrin. Did this really happen? Is there evidence to suggest that Armstrong really did bring a memento from home and leave it on the moon?
Speaking with ScreenCrush, Singer reveals that while there’s no proof that this moment actually did happen, they chose to depict it based on informed opinion that it very likely did happen. To begin with, it’s documented that Armstrong really did venture off for a private moment at the Little West Crater:
“Everything else that they did on the Moon was scripted. [Armstrong] jogging over to the Little West Crater, that was Neil going ‘I’m going to go over here.’ Why does he do that? What’s he do over there?”
The decision to include the moment in the film came from its source material, James R. Hansen’s well-researched book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong:
Singer claims he would “never have made that choice” to show Armstrong dropping the bracelet on his own. (“That’s Hollywood!” he told me.) “But,” he explained, “if Jim [Hansen], who studied Neil for years and talked to Neil for hours and hours, and talked to Janet and June and everyone in his family. If he … based on what he knew of Neil after all that time and based on all his interviews with everyone else said ‘I think I this happened. I think he left something of Karen’s on the moon’ … I was like ‘All right, if it’s good enough for Jim, it’s good enough for me.’”
Chazelle himself addressed the issue of whether Neil dropping the bracelet was fact or fiction on Variety’s Playback podcast:
“It wasn’t made up, but unlike certain events in the movie it’s not something we can confirm with absolute confidence that it actually happened… It’s a conjecture basically. It’s a conjecture by Neil’s biographer, his historian Jim Hansen. It’s a conjecture that was then backed up, or at least suggested as well by Neil’s sister June who Ryan and I got to spend some time with. It was, I found, a very beautiful conjecture or hypothesis. Neil himself neither confirmed or denied—he basically refused to talk about or disclose [leaving something of Karen’s] while on the moon. So again we don’t have an absolute confirmation that it happened, but I’d like to think it did and certainly people who were very close to Neil like to think it did. It wasn’t an idea that we came up with, but it was something that as soon as we heard, it sort of helped dictate, ‘Okay if that’s the light at the end of the tunnel, if that’s the station that the train needs to pull into at the end, how can we best lay the pipe to get there?’”
As for the film’s heartbreaking final shot, which finds Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) touching hands through glass as he’s in quarantine, signaling the rift or divide in their relationship, Singer went a bit more in-depth on how that scene came about during his interview with ScreenCrush. He even revealed an alternate ending that was originally scripted:
“Look, in point of fact, Neil and Janet didn’t get divorced for another 20 years. They were both strong-willed individuals who were going to muddle through regardless. In the first version of that scene, we didn’t have them touching hands. On the page, it was just them looking at each other through the glass. Then there was a subsequent scene where Neil is told he’s not going to fly in space again and he comes home and looks at his house and he can’t quite bring himself to go in because he’s a stranger in his own home.”
But the real-life Janet informed Singer and Chazelle’s decision to pull back and end on a feeling of hope:
“We actually got feedback from Janet who was like ‘Well, it wasn’t over. The seeds were there, but we kept trying for a long time.’ And ultimately we also decided we’ve got to leave you with a little hope. They’re still reaching for each other. So we re-wrote it and that’s where we wind up.”
So there you have it. The First Man ending isn’t exactly a piece of documented fact, but it’s also not purely fiction. As with much of the film, it’s all informed by those who knew Neil the best, and in service of painting as true a picture of the real-life figure as possible