"You're bouncing off the atmosphere."
Early in director Damien Chazelle's First Man, this is one of the cautions given to Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) during his pilot training, years before he walked on the moon. That idea of the barrier between Earth and space, the violence of making the journey through it and the almost mystical experience of being on the other side of it forms the spine of the film.
We encounter Armstrong at three points: 1961, leading up to the start of his training as an astronaut; 1965, just before his first space flight; and 1968, as he prepares to be the first person to walk on the moon. His family life progresses alongside his much more famous professional one: the loss of his two-year-old daughter from brain cancer, the grief that nearly consumes him after, the sacrifices that his service demands from his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), and his relationship with his two boys, to whom he hesitates to explain the dangers of space travel.
It makes all the sense in the world that this screenplay is written by Josh Singer, who has screenwriting credits on Spotlight and The Post and, long ago, The West Wing. Singer seems drawn to stories that often make up a certain American integrity narrative—the noble presidency, a justice-seeking press, and here, the moon landing. But while those pieces favor high drama in their declaration of principle, this one is a little quieter. It shows streaks of rah-rah nostalgia for a terribly troubled age with not a lot of discussion of what made it so troubled (save for a reading of Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey On The Moon"). But Gosling's version of Armstrong is intriguingly turned inward, deeply feeling but outwardly passive.