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Review: In ‘First Man,’ Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong thrills without theatrics

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.

Those deaths, as well as several that came before, haunt Armstrong throughout “First Man,” which depicts him as unable or unwilling to express the mortal fear and loss that are his occupational hazards. But the sadness that trails Armstrong is nowhere stronger than in his own home. As “First Man” begins, Armstrong and his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), endure an unspeakable loss. True to form, Armstrong copes by compartmentalizing his grief, often leaving Janet and their two young sons behind, both physically and emotionally.

If Armstrong is a reluctant hero, that makes him all the more appealing in “First Man,” which is far less interested in derring-do and camera-ready cool than in depicting the discipline, focus, stamina and superhuman nerve it took for Armstrong and his colleagues to do their jobs. Gosling, with blue eyes blazing, brings an enormous store of innate charm and audience goodwill to a character who often seems to be as distant and isolated as the moon he stares at with unspoken longing. Foy, best known for her superb portrayal of Queen Elizabeth on “The Crown,” delivers an anxious, no-nonsense depiction of the anti-astronaut’s wife, subverting the coiffed, “We’re very proud and happy” stereotype to remind Armstrong, his superiors and the audience that, behind the photo ops and press releases, NASA families are enduring real sacrifice and suffering.

This might sound like a downer. And it’s true that, thanks to both its diffident hero and its resistance of easy romanticism, “First Man” is a surprisingly somber, occasionally inert, sometimes even off-putting enterprise. Even the visual language sends a mixed message: At times the messy verité-style realism and IMAX-scale spectacle seem to be fighting each other, with neither emerging a clear winner.

But those contradictions also make “First Man” 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. (Chazelle reportedly reminded his crew that the phones in their pockets had more sophisticated technology than what got Apollo 11 to the moon.) One particularly memorable sequence juxtaposes the Apollo 1 tragedy with people protesting NASA’s priorities in a montage set to Gil Scott-Heron’s scorching “Whitey on the Moon.”

That ambivalence makes the movie a bit unwieldy, but ultimately stronger. 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.

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Three and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains some mature thematic elements involving peril, and brief strong language. 141 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

Ann Hornaday is The Washington Post’s chief film critic. She is the author of “Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies.” 

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