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Watch ‘First Man,’ Then Watch These Movies

We recommend 10 movies and a miniseries to watch after you see Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic.
First Man
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 14th, 2018

Damien Chazelle‘s last movie, La La Land, wore a lot of its influences on its sleeve. In fact, there were 24 movies I could recommend to fans of the Oscar-winning musical to watch afterward. With his Neil Armstrong biopic, First Man, the only earlier movie with blatant DNA visible and audible onscreen is 2001: A Space Odyssey, to which the new film pays homage. Of course, there are also tons of other precursors involving real-life and fictional space missions. So many, that this week’s Movies to Watch After… is focused on titles directly related in subject matter.

There were some more random movies I thought of while watching First Man, such as Loving during the home-life scenes. And as Justin Chang points out in his review for the Los Angeles Times, the climactic landing on the Moon shares something with Dorothy’s arrival in Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz. But I’m going with a streamlined lesson here, even if it means overlapping with numerous listicles released lately in anticipation of Chazelle’s entry into the subgenre of astronaut dramas. Below, I highlight 10 films and one miniseries, but each specific recommendation comes with additional suggestions.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Trip To The Moon

Inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Georges Melies’ iconic sci-fi short was not the filmmaker’s first work involving the Moon. The previous works, known as A Nightmare and The Astronomer’s Moon, are centered around dreams and the Moon being a creature sort of existing on the same plane as the Earth. A Trip to the Moon depicts the first mission to the Moon, which is also famously portrayed as a giant face, by spacecraft. Melies is more interested in fantasy, however, than the real physics of space travel, which Verne’s novel “From the Earth to the Moon” is astoundingly prescient about.

Many sci-fi movies released in the years ahead of NASA’s actual missions are also total fantasies — see Fritz Lang’s 1929 silent picture Woman in the Moon — though some such as the 1958 Verne adaptation From the Earth to the Moon and 1950’s Destination Moon do also try for technical accuracy. There have been cinematic trips to the Moon made after the real visits that ignored scientific fact, too, such as the 1989 Wallace and Gromit short A Grand Day Out and Pixar’s 2011 short La Luna, as well as Terry Gilliam’s Melies-inspired 1989 feature The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Countdown (1967)


Throughout the 1960s, more sci-fi movies were made that attempted to correspond with the actual space missions. They range from Richard Lester’s silly Space Race satire from 1963, The Mouse on the Moon, to John Sturges’ drama Marooned, which came out just after Armstrong’s historical feat and deals with astronauts in an emergency situation that eerily sort of prophesized the Apollo 13 mission’s problems, except here a rescue effort was needed. Then there’s the early Robert Altman movie Countdown, which opened in the US in 1968 within months of the release of 2001. Based on the 1964 novel “The Pilgrim Project,” the serious drama is very much attuned to the real US space program and its competition with the Soviets.

NASA even cooperated with the production of Countdown, and Altman filmed the launch of the Gemini 11 to be used as a mission launch in his movie. The book was also inspired by a real proposal to NASA of a one-way trip to the Moon, submitted around the time that Neil Armstrong was being interviewed to become an astronaut, as depicted in First Man including his own take on how to achieve a lunar mission. The new film also references how NASA kept having to rethink and evolve their missions, and that’s part of the scenario of Countdown, that NASA has to go with their alternative plan for Project Pilgrim, sending James Caan to the Moon to try to beat the Russians, a plan that would basically purposefully strand the first man on the Moon there until the Apollo program was perfected and could send a mission to retrieve the astronaut.

High School (1968)

High School

While 2001 seems to be the only explicit influence on First Man, editor Tom Cross told The Hollywood Reporter of some of the less obvious inspirations: “We watched movies like The Battle of Algiers and The French Connection…A lot of our conversations had to do with the Maysleses and D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman, and those cinema verite documentaries 
of the 1960s — how they were put together and the ways you could join shots in such a way that it 
felt emotionally continuous, but actually wasn’t.”

Chazelle also referenced the documentary influence to The Washington Post; “If 2001 is the grand movie-movie treatment of space and the greatest possible version of that, you’re never going to beat that…(We thought), could we do the documentary version of that? Could we do the gritty, camera on the shoulder, 16mm, cinema verite version of space and make it feel like D.A. Pennebaker had crawled into the capsule with the astronauts?”

Neither Pennebaker nor the other named documentarians made any films about NASA or actual space travel, but Wiseman does have one film involving a space mission — well, it’s a simulation with students at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School featured in the classic feature High School. A pretty authentic-looking simulation with kids dressed as astronauts or playing members of a mission command. Twenty years later, Wiseman made Missile, which deals with nuclear missile command silos, and it features a memorial service for the Challenger astronauts killed in 1986.

Moonwalk One (1970)

Moonwalk One

As for docs about the actual Moon landing, the first to arrive was 1969’s Footprints on the Moon: Apollo 11, but this is the best-remembered — and is referenced by Chazelle to The Hollywood Reporter. While the earlier film is mostly a straight presentation of the record of the Moon landing, Moonwalk One chronicles a lot more of the preparations for Apollo 11 and the routines of Armstrong and the other astronauts as well as a lot of the aftermath, including the parades and other recognitions of the achievement. And, of course, there’s all the stuff on the lunar surface, including the planting of the American flag. Where Footprints puts the mission in the context of Verne and fantasy, Moonwalk One does so in the context of scientific history.

In the almost 50 years since Apollo 11, many other docs have been about the first Moon landing and subsequent missions. Another essential acknowledged by Chazelle is Al Reinert’s Oscar-nominated 1989 feature For All Mankind, which focuses specifically on the Apollo missions and features narration from Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins (played by Lukas Haas in First Man) and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber in First Man) among others. There’s also 2007’s In the Shadow of the Moon, which includes interviews with 10 Apollo astronauts, including Collins, Lovell, and Buzz Aldrin. And if you saw First Man on an IMAX screen, you’ll appreciate the 2005 IMAX doc Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon 3D.

Capricorn One (1977)

Capricorn One

Considering how well the Moon scenes were produced for movies like Countdown and 2001, the claims that the Apollo 11 mission was a fake would seem to have some weight. And this movie, out almost a decade later, suggests the concept of faking a space mission to Mars that certainly hints at what happened with an attempt to go to the Moon. Director Peter Hyams apparently got the idea while working on the CBS broadcast of Apollo 11, years before the first public claim of a Moon landing conspiracy theory in the mid-1970s. What Capricorn One supposes is, had NASA astronauts not wanted to agree to the faking of a space mission, they’d have been assassinated and their deaths would publicly be presented as a re-entry disaster.

If this entertaining thriller starring the amazing trio of James Brolin, Sam Waterston, and O.J. Simpson, plus Elliott Gould as an investigative reporter, isn’t suggestive enough, how about the supposed hints made by 2001 director Stanley Kubrick in his 1980 Stephen King adaptation The Shining that he had staged the Moon landing? Wait, what? For that claim, watch Rodney Ascher’s cult hit documentary Room 237. Other recent movies have recently dramatized the concept that Apollo 11 was fake, including Moonwalkers from 2015, but better is the documentary-style Operation Avalanche released a year later.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.