First Man has all the trappings of an Oscar triumph. True to life story of American heroism? Check. Opportunity for visionary filmmaker tocreate indelible images? Check. Strong Oscar pedigree among creative team?Check. Box office smash hit… eh, not so much.

Damian Chazelle is an undeniably talented filmmaker, and – far more than the rather low-stakes and meandering La La Land – his new filmshares a lot of DNA with his first big hit Whiplash. Again, we are plunged intothe action with precious little in the way of explanation or backstory. Again, we are left to impose our own thought processes on to a stubbornly taciturnleading man. But here, rather than focusing on an intensely human battle ofwills, with a (frankly rather odd conception of) jazz music as the background,we instead have one of the most audacious engineering projects in the historyof the twentieth century as our story material.

The problem is that Neil Armstrong isn’t the most pivotal figure in this story. The Right Stuff succeeds partly because it finds a very specific angle from which to come at this tale – who are the people who will fly these machines and what qualities do they need to have? – and because of director Philip Kaufman’s determinedly quirky approach. The other companion film to these two is 2016’s Hidden Figures, which successfully finds an untold and very human story, but squanders it in unambitious, sitcom-level execution.

Not only does Armstrong spend the movie obediently carrying out the wishes of others, rather than being a wilful hero who makes decisions and controls his own destiny, the very facets of his personality which make him ideal for the job – calm under pressure, presents well, not prone to outbreaks of emotion – also make him a pretty dull hero for a movie. In this regard, Ryan Gosling is an excellent choice. His movie-star stoicism translates very well into Armstrong’s patient heroics.

What Chazelle attempts is a portrait of a marriage. Second-billed Claire Foy should have an equal stake in the narrative, but when he’s flying a rocket to the moon, and she’s at home hoping her intercom connection to mission control won’t be cut off, it’s hard to see them as equals. This version of the film suddenly crackles into life when Foy makes him sit down and tell their kids that there’s a chance he won’t be coming back. Suddenly, Gosling’s closed-off performance becomes the point, rather than a detail. But it’s a long time to wait and it’s over with fairly quickly.

Elsewhere, it’s pretty much drama-documentary here’s-how-we-went-to-the-moon stuff, buoyed by Chazelle’s sense of style – for example, almost completely denyingus exterior shots of rockets taking off, instead keeping us trapped in the variouscapsules and cockpits with the pilots. But even here, fascinating parts of the story don’t make the cut. Not just planting the American flag on the moon (for fuck’s sake) but the details of who (if anyone) wrote those first words for Armstrong to say – and did he blow his lines? Or Aldrin damaging the circuit breaker which would enable the lander to take off again – and having to jam a pen inthere to make it work. That would have been a great pay-off for the kind-of-an-asshole version of Aldrin essayed by Corey Stoll, but it’s omitted entirely.

Meanwhile, an entirely fictitious tribute to Armstrong’s late daughter is introduced instead, which I object to not because it’s made up but because it didn’t ring true, which is far more important.

Will this sweep the boards on 24 February? Hard to say at this point, but I think probably not. With up to ten nominees for Best Picture, it’s in with a shout there, but stands very little chance of winning. Chazelle and Gosling might pick up nominations too, but both were overlooked at the Golden Globes, so it doesn’t look likely.

Other films on my Oscar radar include: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Roma, Vice, The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me.

So… what did I think of It Takes You Away
So… what did I think of The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos?