Damien Chazelle's "First Man" -- about astronaut Neil Armstrong during the space-race years -- opens with Armstrong on a solo test flight 140,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. We hear engines revving, a chassis rattling; then, we see Ryan Gosling's Armstrong, strapped into his little craft, white-knuckling his way toward the atmosphere. It's a panic-inducing opening sequence, mostly played in tight shots and on Gosling's eyes. In this, Chazelle pulls a "Saving Private Ryan," kicking off with a "you-are-there" sequence of palpable intensity.
NASA's legendary work in the 1960s has gotten plenty of attention from Hollywood over the years, but Chazelle finds a strong-enough new angle in screenwriter Josh Singer's adaptation of the James R. Hansen book "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong." By putting the focus on the man, not only the "first man" on the moon but the husband, the father, the aeronautical engineer, and the daring pilot, Singer and Chazelle can re-investigate familiar history in the form of genuine drama.
As for that history, Chazelle ("La La Land") and ace production designer Nathan Crowley ("Dunkirk") do expert work bringing Project Gemini and the Apollo program back to life. One can feel the technology making strides over the course of the years covered (1961-1969), from creaky fragility and rickety rivets to the moon-landing technology that enabled a national triumph after years of taking hits from Soviet space superiority. Every toggle switch and joystick feels right, as do a recreation of Gil Scott-Heron (Leon Bridges) performing protest rap "Whitey on the Moon" and the series of stressful NASA press conferences.
Armstrong's toughest press conference is the one around the dining-room table with his wife (Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong) and children, answering their questions, if not allaying their fears, before going off on another life-threatening space odyssey.
Throughout the film, Singer and Chazelle focus on the theme of the ever-looming spectre of death: from the brain tumor that felled Armstrong's daughter in 1962 to the deaths of his fellow astronauts in a space program that was mortally treacherous at every stage. Gosling channels Armstrong's inhuman stress and functional, but edgy, anxiety in a performance of quiet brooding.
Foy does much the same, portraying a wife and mother's quiet strength but also the moments when quiet won't do (she fearfully explodes at Kyle Chandler's Deke Slayton: "You're a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood you don't have anything under control!"). Chazelle assembles a stong, unshowy supporting cast: Jason Clarke, Ciaran Hinds, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas and Corey Stoll doing a canny Buzz Aldrin. The acting and the filmmakers' vigorous recreations keep "First Man" percolating despite the flight sequences feeling increasingly repetitive (none recapture the full effect of the film's opening minutes).
Armstrong advocates not just "exploration for the sake of exploration" but a way of shifting human perspective. By focusing on Armstrong's human perspective, "First Man" gives us a new window into the costs and benefits of taking "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."