Ryan Gosling does his best to dial down his star power in “First Man,” in which he plays astronaut Neil Armstrong with unsmiling reticence and stoicism. Based on James R. Hansen’s biography of the same name, this absorbing, meticulously detailed chronicle of Armstrong’s career — culminating with the Apollo 11 NASA mission, during which he became the first man to walk on the moon — continually undercuts the story’s inherent triumphalism and mythmaking. Like its protagonist, “First Man” doesn’t go in for theatrics or gratuitous emotion, however justified. It gets the job done, with professionalism, immersive authenticity and unadorned feeling, of which Armstrong himself might just have approved, however apprehensively.
“First Man” prepares viewers for the experience they’re about to have from its first moments, when Armstrong — a gifted aeronautical engineer and Korean War flying ace — is flying a hypersonic X-15 aircraft over the Mojave Desert in 1961. With shaky close-ups and a deafening roar, director Damien Chazelle (working from a script by Josh Singer) never pulls back as Armstrong bounces off the atmosphere, frantically trying to bring the plane safely to ground. Of course, Armstrong himself isn’t frantic. It’s audience members who are likely to find themselves pulling back in their seats or lurching to one side or another as his unseen, collective co-pilot.
It’s a harrowing sequence, full of dizzying, disorienting close-ups and swirling gadgetry. And that radically subjective visual style will be repeated throughout “First Man,” as Chazelle crams his camera into ever more claustrophobic cockpits and capsules, as well as into the no less fraught environs of the Armstrong household. Hewing closely to Hansen’s book, Chazelle faithfully recounts Armstrong’s bid to become a member of the Gemini team, NASA’s second manned-spaceflight program. He introduces Armstrong’s now-famous colleagues Ed White (Jason Clarke), Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Jim Lovell (Pablo Schreiber) and Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), going to exhaustive lengths to re-create such momentous episodes as the Gemini 8 flight, during which Armstrong successfully docked with another spacecraft before hurtling into a terrifying end-over-end spin. We also learn about the doomed Apollo 1 team, including White, Grissom and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who perished during a preflight test.
“First Man” is smarter and more layered than a conventional space-exploration adventure. For every thrilling triumph, the filmmakers add a crucial piece of context, indicating its human and material costs. More than once, spectators are reminded - with gyrating, disorienting immediacy - that the only thing between NASA astronauts surviving or being vaporized was a creaking bucket of bolts.
When Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Mike Collins (Lukas Haas) take their historic 1969 flight — and Armstrong takes that legendary first step and great leap — the moment carries all the more grandeur and moral force for being staged with solemnity and pockets of voidlike silence. “First Man” may not wear its heart on its sleeve. But it trusts the audience to find it on their own, in a quieter and more reflective place.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy and Jason Clarke. Directed by Damien Chazelle
Rated PG-13. Contains some mature thematic elements involving peril, and brief strong language. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Bottom line: Smarter and more layered than a conventional space-exploration adventure