This post contains mild spoilers for First Man.
After watching First Man, I find it fitting that the first words out of screenwriter Josh Singer’s mouth during our interview is an endearing story about his wife, novelist Laura Dave. From the one-sentence IMDb description, Damien Chazelle’s First Man appears to be about the harrowing, high-octane journey astronaut Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) took to the moon. In actuality, First Man is just as much Janet Armstrong’s story as it is Neil’s — just like my conversation with Singer is half about his own wife. “One of the things I’m proudest of in the film is the portrait of Janet,” Singer said. “At every turn I was struck by the heroism, the quiet grace of Janet.”
Of every working actress in Hollywood, perhaps Claire Foy – able to practically deliver entire invectives with a glance as Queen Elizabeth II on The Crown — could best capture Janet’s "quiet grace." As Janet, Foy delivers entire soliloquies without saying a word. When Neil is hurtling through his first trip to space, for example, Janet listens to the mission's radio transmission with a clenched expression, everything she's not saying about the tremendous sacrifices required of an astronaut's wife subtly surfacing on her face. When Janet does speak, though, her sentences land with impact. Her outburst at NASA men – "You're just a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood" – reveals the massive difficulty of entrusting her husband's life to an idealistic moon mission run by fellow humans.
We’re told at a young age that anger is a bad thing, that we need to control it...I think that we should feel angry.
"That’s the thing with Jan. When she was angry, when she did feel something was wrong, when she felt moved to speak, she did," Foy told Refinery29. Janet's portrayal is an exercise in carefully controlled emotion. Eventually, her emotion boils over in scenes that demonstrate the sheer power of female anger, directly applied. Because when she speaks, people listen.
For Foy, Janet's scenes convey the power that anger can have. "We’re told at a young age that anger is a bad thing, that we need to control it, that it’s not right to stamp your feet, jump up and down, and say, ‘That’s not fair.’ We all go through life like it’s a bad emotion to feel. I think we should feel angry. The idea that you should be practical and impartial is helpful in some occasions, but it’s really not helpful in a lot of times. Jan had a really good balance," Foy said.
And Janet — alone at home and under pressure to smile for magazine cover shoots— had reason to be frustrated. "Their stories haven't been told," Foy said of the astronauts' wives, left to run the domestic sphere while their husbands embarked on perilous space missions. Janet's story, as First Man shows, is particularly harrowing. She and Neil met in college and married in 1956. Six years later, their marriage was rocked by the death of their young daughter, Karen – which happened on their wedding anniversary. From there, Neil and Janet suffered further blows, like missions gone nearly awry and the deaths of multiple friends in the space program. Janet was often left to tend to the neighborhood's grieving widows, knowing full well she could be next.
Foy emphasizes that what you're seeing in First Man is an accurate simulacra of Janet herself. "The character, Janet, was very true to the woman. Josh didn’t try to fit her into the mold of being someone else. He definitely was very truthful about her," Foy revealed. The accuracy comes from first-hand information: Singer interviewed the real Janet Armstrong for the script before she died, two months before First Man's release. Beyond informing the script, these tapes had held another important purpose in the creation of First Man: Foy listened to Janet's interviews for an hour each day to nail her Midwestern accent.
Originally, First Men ended on a more dour note for Janet and Neil's marriage. After reading this more pessimistic version of the script, the real Janet Armstrong reminded Singer that her and Neil's relationship wasn't done when the mission was over, prompting Singer to arrive at the movie's current ending: Janet and Neil touching each other's hands through glass.
"They stayed together for another 25 years, which tells us a little bit about how much they really did care about each other and how tough they both were," Singer said. "They were two young American kids who love each other deeply and just suffer blow after blow. It’s ultimately a question of how many blows can a marriage take? I think there is a limit. They're reaching for each other through that glass, but ultimately, they couldn't quite make it."
"The end of the movie is the right ending of it. It’s a fragile, relatively hopeful place: They’re going to stay together. They're going to work it out," Foy said, adding that the reason their marriage ultimately ended 25 years after the events in First Man wasn't just the space program, though many of those NASA marriages ended in divorce. "They also suffered many tragedies in their marriage. Ultimately, Jan said that she couldn’t be married to that personality anymore."