“First Man,” the Neil Armstrong biopic, sees Ryan Gosling in his most inscrutable role, as the first man on the moon and the last guy you’d want to talk to at a party. Armstrong’s thinking in the ’60s, when “First Man” takes place, was split between the memory of his young daughter’s death from cancer and the pursuit of manned spaceflight, an occasionally chaotic process that killed test pilots along the way. After watching the daughter lowered into a grave in a little wooden box, it’s easy to see the rest of the capsules and cockpits as a series of coffins into which a grieving astronaut must climb.
Stoicism seems to be a survival trait for the pilot. Where “First Man” undoubtedly succeeds is in depiction of harrowing flights, opening the film with Armstrong in ’61 taking a test run to the edge of space at 140,000 feet … and then continuing to rise. In the history of terrifying movie lines, the static radio crackle here — “you’re bouncing off the atmosphere” — has to rank high. He’s able to use wing thrusters ultimately to right himself (and then, of course, plummet to earth) but the sense of stakes remains. For whatever else Armstrong lacks as a protagonist, you can believe that this unflappable sumbitch would be the one they put in charge of the most fantastical space mission in world history.
Director Damien Chazelle, swinging big after his Oscar darlings “La La Land” and “Whiplash,” treats the ambition of space travel with the technical admiration he brought to jazz. This is not a quippy or wisecracking crew you have here; the stakes require specificity and care. Josh Singer’s screenplay follows James R. Hansen’s biography of Armstrong, but at times it seems Chazelle prefers a symphony of groans, hums, rattles, creaks, roars and pops to explain what it meant in the 1960s to climb into a rocket and leave the planet for a spell. It was a tempered catastrophe, powered by calculus, all packed so tightly not even claustrophobia could fit.
And then, you’re in space. Chazelle plays the actual voyage of the Apollo 11 mission as a beautiful, almost serene coda to the human affairs on the ground. Armstrong here can confidently look death in the eye, but he wilts when his exasperated wife, Janet (a convincing Claire Foy), marches him to the kitchen to tell their two sons that he, like their late neighbor Ed White (Jason Clarke), might not ever return home. Armstrong always seems to find space a respite, staring through instruments at the moon when he’s trying to avoid thinking about his dead kid, which is often.
Setting such an emotionally constipated person at the center of your film necessarily presents some difficulties, and “First Man” doesn’t emerge unscathed. The plot runs through the historical places and events you’re familiar with. As a character study, it leaves us wanting better to understand Armstrong’s opaque inner world. But give it credit: Neither Gosling nor Chazelle resort to sensationalism to overhype what was, in effect, a triumph of the human will over motion physics. This was the man in the machine, the guy who could handle a throttle when he should be blacking out from G-forces. It’s worth remembering that even space cowboys at times rode lonely and silent.