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First Man: The new Neil Armstrong biopic soaring beyond cliché

It could have been another ra-ra biopic about an American hero, but this Neil Armstrong story soars beyond the clichés, delivering action and emotion.

No, First Man is not a documentary about Neil Armstrong or the Apollo programme. There have been plenty of those, as well as many a rousing dramatisation of that brief age of miracles when Nasa landed a dozen men on the moon.

Had James Hansen’s authorised biography of Armstrong been adapted by, say, Clint Eastwood, who was originally in the frame, it  would have been another ra-ra biopic of an American hero with the right stuff.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

But in the hands of director Damien Chazelle – who had Ryan Gosling playing among the stars in musical La La Land, and flies him to the moon as Armstrong – First Man soars on a trajectory of its own design. It’s a movie that manages to be both immersive aerospace epic and intimate character drama. It’s unhurried and affecting on terra firma. It then makes you wish for cinema seat belts as it puts you in the cockpit with Armstrong on his test flights and that moon shot.

It tells a story of technological achievement but isn’t hung up on the maths — there’s one blackboard session in the whole movie. Likewise, it does just enough to foreground the politics of the era in a few deft strokes. Inevitably, there’s a replay of JFK’s “we choose to go to the moon” speech from 1962, but surely this is the first Nasa movie to include Gil Scott-Heron’s scathing Whitey on the Moon.

Though not a great physical match, Gosling is fine as the taciturn Armstrong. The movie’s own acting main-stage rocket, though, is Claire Foy, as his wife, Janet, who makes her much more than the worried mom listening to the mission-control radio feed.

The film posits that the cancer death of their infant daughter, Karen, before he was selected by Nasa, somehow affected Armstrong; that perhaps the sangfroid and obsessive perfectionism he displayed as a supersonic test pilot and engineer were increased by his repressed grief. Cramming all that emotional baggage into a tiny lunar module might seem risky. It just helps make First Man a remarkable film of a remarkable guy.

IN CINEMAS OCTOBER 11

★★★★★

This article was first published in the October 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.