First Man finally gives me a moon landing that isn't black and white

Commentary: Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong biopic is an amber and teal masterpiece as familiar as your family photo album.

Claire Reilly Former Principal Video Producer
Claire Reilly was a video host, journalist and producer covering all things space, futurism, science and culture. Whether she's covering breaking news, explaining complex science topics or exploring the weirder sides of tech culture, Claire gets to the heart of why technology matters to everyone. She's been a regular commentator on broadcast news, and in her spare time, she's a cabaret enthusiast, Simpsons aficionado and closet country music lover. She originally hails from Sydney but now calls San Francisco home.
Expertise Space, Futurism, Science and Sci-Tech, Robotics, Tech Culture Credentials
  • Webby Award Winner (Best Video Host, 2021), Webby Nominee (Podcasts, 2021), Gold Telly (Documentary Series, 2021), Silver Telly (Video Writing, 2021), W3 Award (Best Host, 2020), Australian IT Journalism Awards (Best Journalist, Best News Journalist 2017)
Claire Reilly
4 min read

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 gray. 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.


Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy are a mid-century modern vision in amber and blue. 


Directed by La La Land writer-director Damien Chazelle, First Man follows a quiet and reserved Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, as he works his way through NASA's space program 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.


Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) with all the home furnishings I would ever like to own.


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-gray 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 gray 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.

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