FIRST MAN's Josh Singer on the screenwriter's responsibility in tackling historical pieces

Photo Credit: Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

Below is a guest post written by WGA and Academy Award winning screenwriter Josh Singer.  His latest film is First Man, a look at the life of Neil Armstrong and the space mission that led him to become the first man to walk on the moon.

A few Fridays ago, I went to the Smithsonian.  There was a gathering of space historians and I wanted to chat with them, find out how we did.  Damien [Chazelle] and I were scrupulous in our attempts to realistically capture space flight and Neil Armstrong's eight-year journey to the moon.  I was so obsessed with it, I wrote a book—an annotated screenplay—to give historical context and to be transparent about the few places the movie takes license.  Beyond 'showing my homework’, I wanted to start a conversation about the responsibility of screenwriters in tackling historical pieces.  

Why bother?  There's so much blurring of the truth in the news these days, isn't the blurring of the truth in fiction practically irrelevant?

I don't think so.  I think blurring truth in movies is pernicious.  I think the stories and myths we share instill values.  Movies and television inform our culture and, in some cases, teach us how to live. 

This is why Damien and I worked so hard to get the history right.  We wanted to show what getting to the moon actually cost, to blow up the triumphalist narrative around Apollo.  We wanted to make it clear to the country that if we are to tackle the huge challenges we face (income inequality, climate change), we're going to have to stop asking for what our country can do for us and once again start asking what we can do for our country.  

In this way, First Man is about values.  Values Damien and I believe in.  Values we hoped the country would recognize and once again appreciate.  And values that we both tried to live up to in our attempts to capture this history accurately on film.   

Every year, people take shots at various films for accuracy.  Sometimes they’re right and sometimes they’re wrong.  Sometimes they’re too tough and sometimes they’re not tough enough.  But why let others tell us what’s right and wrong?  Shouldn’t we, as screenwriters, have our own code of ethics?  A sense of what’s responsible and what’s irresponsible?   Maybe even an ongoing discussion to that end? 

This is something I’ve been wrestling with since The Fifth Estate.  And I think it’s worthy of a broader conversation.  Please join me and former WGA President Howard Rodman in that conversation on January 10th at the Library at the Writers Guild Foundation.  Check your upcoming WGA Calendar for more info.

The screenplay for First Man is now available to read in the WGF Library.