His Penelope — loyal, anxious, angry, exhausted — is Janet (Claire Foy, trading in her plummy royal diction for flattened Midwestern vowels). She moves to Houston with her husband and their two young sons after Neil is accepted into the Gemini program. (The NASA people in the movie pronounce it Gemin-ee, not Gemin-eye.) Earlier, when he was at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the couple’s young daughter, Karen, died of a brain tumor, and “First Man” posits Neil and Janet’s grief as a kind of Rosebud, a half-buried center of emotional and psychological gravity, a source of motive and meaning.
Karen’s is not the only death to be mourned. Janet sometimes seems to move through her days in anticipation of widowhood, and the progress of the Gemini and Apollo programs is measured partly in lives lost. Even for viewers versed in NASA history, who will know the fates of certain characters as soon as they are introduced, the deaths come as a shock. They are dramatized with cinematic tact, so that what you register is not horror but a sudden, disorienting absence, as if the men had vanished into space rather than crashing to earth or burning up on the launchpad.
Neil, for all his competitive drive, is very much a team player, and the moon shot is a collective effort. “First Man” is more sports movie than science fiction, and not only because one of the mission commanders (Deke Slayton) is played by Kyle Chandler, forever Coach Taylor to “Friday Night Lights” fans. Slayton and Robert Gilruth (Ciaran Hinds) oversee a squad of rivals and comrades, showboats and role players, all of them contending with an invisible, formidable opposing team.
The Russians! The Soviet Union had beaten the United States to every space-travel milestone, and NASA’s lunar program is like a fourth-quarter drive to score the winning touchdown. The natural quarterback seems to be Ed White (Jason Clarke), Neil’s closest friend. The wild card is Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), who shoots off his mouth and is more tolerated than beloved by his teammates. There are a scattering of wide-eyed rookies and wise veterans to round out the squad. (Shea Whigham, Christopher Abbott and Patrick Fugit stand out in a fine supporting cast.) The guys all work hard, drink beer together after hours and dwell in a Valhalla of tough-and-tender male camaraderie.