First Man Donald Mowat Ryan Gosling

How First Man took its visual cue from a Vietnam War documentary

Contributed by
Oct 15, 2018

Many conspiracy theorists like to think that Stanley Kubrick faked the Apollo 11 moon landing in July of 1969. While utterly false (sorry, conspiracy theorists), Damien Chazelle had to do just that for his acclaimed Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, with Ryan Gosling in the lead role.

So, how do you go about recreating the 1960s for cinema? For one thing, you hire Donald Mowat, a BAFTA-nominated makeup specialist whose resume includes major genre projects such as Skyfall, Spectre, and Blade Runner 2049.

As head of the makeup department for First Man, Mowat grappled with the best way to depict the time period and, for reference, ended up turning to another major event of the 1960s that also came to define the counterculture decade. And for that, he had to fire up a Huey copter and start pumping up the Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Ryan Gosling Neil Armstrong First Man

Credit: Universal Pictures

"I really went to [the] Ken Burns [and Lynn Novick documentary on Vietnam]," he told SYFY WIRE on a phone call. "That, for me, was really indicative, because we saw politics, science. It was much more '50s for the men, really groomed, clean-shaved. Everybody [on set] was so helpful, shaving everyday and being smooth. [The] harder thing for us, makeup-wise, was covering tattoos, because at that timeframe all the men wore short-sleeve button-down white shirts. That was something you have to deal with and the shaving aspect, the barbered, very boyish look everyone had."

For the female characters, on the other hand, the plan was to show them as strong and self-reliant, rather than dependent on the "big strong men" who were in charge of the mission. This is certainly apparent in the scene where Janet Armstrong (played by Claire Foy) tells Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) and Ed White (Jason Clarke) that they're just "a buncha boys making models out of balsa wood. You don't have anything under control!"

Claire Foy Janet Armstrong First Man

Credit: Universal Pictures

"With the women, particularly with Claire Foy, we really wanted to show this sort of independent and academic [type of woman]. She went to college with him, so we were really desperately trying not to get into the world of astronauts' wives," Mowat said.

First Man is now playing in theaters everywhere.


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