For me, the moon landing will always be in black and white. I was born well after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in 1969 — in my lifetime, no one has entered the moon’s orbit.
So, like a lot of people born after the ’60s, I’ve only ever experienced one of humanity’s greatest achievements in shades of grey. Newspaper clippings. Old photographs. Black and white news footage. That same footage of “one small step” played over and over. Just as I once naively asked my parents if the “olden days” were black and white in real life, this period of history feels like it’s permanently frozen in monochrome stasis, kept safe under the bell jar of history.
But First Man was the first time I experienced the moon landing in full colour. And it was a ’60s dream, painted in warm amber and vivid blue.
Directed by La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle, First Man follows a quiet and reserved Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, as he while overcoming the immense private grief of losing his daughter to a brain tumour. It’s a film as much about family and fatherhood as it is about the space race, focusing on Armstrong’s private life and marriage to his wife Janet, played by Claire Foy.
But the film’s greatest achievement isn’t bringing us more angles of that first “small step” or creating the perfect CGI rocket show (sorry Michael Bay fans). Even Armstrong’s life-defining moment is left to the final act.
This is a film that directs our gaze away from the blackness of space to vibrant, beautiful moments here on earth. To man, rather than mankind. And it does it with a colour palette straight out of your family photo album.
Neil plays with his children in a wood-panelled home that looks like every well-worn Polaroid we took at my nan’s house. The brown ashtray in the living room is like the one my great grandmother owned. The wooden TV cabinet with its curved screen — I can almost feel myself sitting down in front of it like I did with our old National cathode ray tube TV as a child. At one point I realise Janet is wearing a brooch I almost bought at a vintage market a few days ago. These are all images far more familiar than a moon landing I never saw.
The spacecraft in First Man are also somehow well-worn and familiar. Neil’s Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 capsules show hammered rivets and wear marks. Amber-lit buttons above blue-grey joysticks look like something you would have maneuvered in a video game as a kid.
Even with the closest of shots — when sunlight is reflecting off Armstrong’s helmet next to Gosling’s blue eyes — amber and blue become the most human of colours, pulling our gaze to the small, everyday experiences as mankind’s biggest experience looms offscreen.
We’ve seen space movies in colour before — think Apollo 13 or Armageddon — but those films were all silver and steel, stars and stripes. White short-sleeved shirts and black ties. Pristine white spacesuits stamped with the American flag in red, white and blockbuster blue. As foreign to my everyday life as the grainy historical footage of the moon landing itself.
But in First Man, suddenly I’m looking at Armstrong like a real person. This isn’t a man who exists frozen in time in grainy black and white. This is a man with a family, a life, a living room, all painted in the colours I know.
The use of an amber and blue colour scheme is a well-known technique of film and television — the two colours are on opposite ends of the colour wheel so they complement each other and look good onscreen. But in First Man the effect isn’t forced. This is the decade of orange dresses and powder blue eye shadow, wood-panelled interiors and cornflower blue kitchens. First Man serves up pure ’60s nostalgia, and it’s beautiful.
Early in the film, Armstrong muses on travelling to the moon, saying it “allows us to see things that we haven’t seen until now.”
“When you get a different vantage point it changes your perspective,” he says.
Armstrong got that different vantage point. Standing on the grey lunar surface staring into the blackness of space, he daydreams of home in vivid colour. He’s journeyed millions of miles to appreciate what he’s left behind.
For me, it took seeing a retelling of the moon landing story, in all those ambers and blues, to realise just how real it was. Armstrong was as human as anyone, and now I get to see him in vivid colour.
NASA turns 60: The space agency has taken humanity farther than anyone else, and it has plans to go further.
Taking It to Extremes: Mix insane situations — erupting volcanoes, nuclear meltdowns, 30-foot waves — with everyday tech. Here’s what happens.