ANYONE under the illusion that space travel is a smooth, glamorous business is quickly disabused of the notion in Damien Chazelle’s enthralling biographical drama about Neil Armstrong. Indeed, such is the number of scenes featuring characters being tossed around like tin cans in a tumble dryer, and upchucking later, you might want to eat after rather than before the cinema.

When we meet Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling, who also starred in Chazelle’s six Oscar-winning La La Land), he is a test pilot attempting to reach the stratosphere. Once there, the light and silence are heavenly. It is the getting there that is hellish.

Armstrong’s ability to keep calm and carry on even when disaster looms has earned him a reputation among colleagues as a fine engineer. Outside of the cockpit, though, he seems distracted, as though his mind is elsewhere. It is. His baby daughter, Karen, is sick and Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are terrified of losing her.

In time, Armstrong applies to be part of the US astronaut programme and the family moves to Houston. Chazelle, intercutting the drama with Nasa public information films of the time, captures those heady days well. With the Soviets winning the space race to date, Nasa is under pressure to achieve the greatest goal of all: putting a man on the Moon.

Based on the book by James R Hansen, First Man takes an admirably clear-eyed view of just what an epic struggle lay behind that one small step of Armstrong’s. Blood, sweat, tears and vomit is just the half of it. There were greater costs of the kind that cannot be measured in dollars, though the programme burned through plenty of those as well, much to the irritation of those who failed to see the point of going into space when so much still needed to be done on Earth.

As Chazelle shows, the space programme was a marriage of high-tech science and good old spit and sawdust. In one scene, astronauts are squeezed into a capsule held together with what look like cracked bolts and rust. There’s a problem with a seatbelt. “Anyone got a Swiss army knife?” shouts one of the crew. In every way, these were men flying by the seat of their pants.

With his wide open, boyish face, Gosling looks like a cartoon character of an astronaut come to life. The Canada-born star of Blade Runner 2049 plays Armstrong as an all-American, straight shooter of a man, a decent soul who sees it as his job, at home and work, to stay strong.

It is left to Foy to show how terrifying it must have been for the astronauts’ families left at home. She does so with great restraint, which makes the emotional eruptions, when they occur, more moving. “You’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood, you don’t have anything under control,” she shouts when Armstrong’s bosses tell her not to worry at yet another setback.

The screenplay by Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post, West Wing) takes the audience through the major steps before Apollo 11’s historic flight. Depending on how much appetite you have for the subject, this will either be a fascinating and essential part of the story or an infuriatingly drawn-out

sideshow to the main event.

More engaging than the test flights and the Houston scenes (if you’ve seen one shot of men in short-sleeve shirts you’ve seen them all) are the glimpses of Armstrong as husband and father. How do you explain to children where daddy is going, far less that he may not come back?

There was far more to Armstrong’s life than making history. While Chazelle’s efforts to get this across

can be a touch overdone at times,

one can always rely on Gosling to

show restraint and his delicate, nuanced portrayal of Armstrong saves the day. Ditto Foy as one of the

women who sacrificed so much to

keep the space programme going.

The tribute paid to them is long overdue.

As he moves smoothly between the epic and the intimate, Chazelle shows a flair and confidence well beyond his years. This is a story that demands a big picture view of life, and Chazelle delivers.