Screenwriter’s new mission? Spotlight Neil Armstrong in an action movie

Writer Josh Singer in Los Angeles in February.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Writer Josh Singer in Los Angeles in February.

Movies about the US space program — “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff” come to mind — are good, but a little gauzy, bordering on hagiography.

Not so “First Man,” the much-anticipated new movie by director Damien Chazelle about astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was many things — aeronautical engineer, test pilot, naval aviator — but will, of course, always be remembered as the first person to walk on the moon.

Based on the book of the same name by James Hansen, “First Man” touches down in theaters in October, but its screenwriter, Josh Singer (inset), was in Boston this week and we chatted about the film briefly as he devoured a salad at Sweetgreen.


Singer, who won, along with Tom McCarthy, the Academy Award for best original screenplay for “Spotlight,” is emphatic that “First Man” is not a biopic. First and foremost, he says, it’s an action film. That’s what Chazelle, the Rhode Island native who won the best director Oscar for “La La Land,” wanted so that’s what Singer delivered.

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“Damien had a very clear vision from the outset. He said, ‘Can we get across how challenging this was? Can we get across the visceral nature of this?’ The space program has been depicted, tonally, on the softer side in the past,” said Singer. “Damien said, ‘I want to be terrified the entire time.’ It’s one of the earliest things we talked about. Neil’s heroism isn’t because he landed on the moon, it’s because he had the wherewithal to live through it all.”

The film stars Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, as well as Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, and Jason Clarke.

Singer said he hopes moviegoers learn a few things about the space program they didn’t know. And he promises it won’t be tedious.

“This is 100 percent a mission movie. It’s about going to the moon as seen through the eyes of the guy who got there,” Singer said. “We have at least five major set pieces that are action, and if your heart rate doesn’t go through the roof, if you’re not gripping the edge of your seat the entire times, I’ll be shocked.”