As the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong is a towering figure in human history. Yet he has always been something of an enigma. All the way until his death in 2012, he maintained a privacy and humility that belied his worldwide fame.

The new film, First Man, seeks to unravel that mystery, and is already generating such enormously positive buzz it's sitting firmly at the front of this year's Oscar contenders.

Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong in the film, which chronicles the years leading up to the historic 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, during which Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin spent two and half hours on the surface of the moon. Gosling says his goal was to humanise the otherwise mythic Armstrong.

"He's an extremely layered person and I think the challenge was in trying to convey some of those layers," Gosling tells TimeOut during an interview at Nasa's headquarters in Cape Canaveral, Florida. "He was famously remote and, some people felt, unknowable. But it was very important to his family that they share every story that they could that would help add some context to that because of course they saw a much different side of him than all of us."

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The actor spoke extensively with Armstrong's two sons, Rick and Mark, and Neil's sister June, in preparation for the role.

"By all accounts he was not a very emotional person. Which isn't to say that he didn't have them or feel very deeply about things. We tried many different approaches to create windows into his psyche and experience to help the audience try to know him in the way that we were coming to know him."

Intimate in ways few films of this scale are, First Man is very much a first-person narrative, repeatedly locating the audience within Armstrong's point-of-view, whether he's conducting wildly dangerous test flights or mourning the death of his 2-year-old daughter Karen, a little-known fact about his personal history.

"It also helped to be in his head from a film-making standpoint so that we could see images that might be in his mind but then to also put the audience in the pilot's seat themselves so they could experience things from his perspective."

First Man

reunites Gosling with his

La La Land

director Damien Chazelle, the film-making wunderkind who became the youngest person to ever win the Best Director Oscar for the acclaimed 2016 musical.

"The first time I ever met with Ryan was to talk about this project," Chazelle recalls. "But I also had this script, La La Land, so our conversations took a turn. But Neil Armstrong was really the beginning for both of us."

The delay allowed Gosling to really consider his performance.

"Ryan had a lot of time to think about and reflect on what the role would be and what he would bring to it. And I think he wound up taking it more seriously than he's ever taken any role, and he's an actor who takes every role seriously. So it's saying a lot for him."

A kerfuffle surrounded First Man after its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival this year: when word emerged that it did not specifically portray the planting of the US flag on the moon (the flag is seen, however), some accused the film of being anti-American. Chazelle is philosophical about it being viewed through a political lens, as it seems everything is these days.

"In some ways it's to be expected," says the director. "We're dealing with an iconic period in history, and people have very emotional associations with that period, as do I."

Chazelle is confident the impending release of the film will answer any such criticisms.

"Conversations that have been happening almost exclusively among people who haven't seen the film will now be translated into conversations among people who have seen the film. I think it's evident in every frame how patriotic it is, and how much was put on the line by the people whose story we're telling in order for all of us to benefit."

Indeed, in addition to closely examining Armstrong and his wife Janet (played by English actor Claire Foy, who shot to fame playing Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix sensation The Crown), First Man emphasises the many who perished in the name of going to the moon. Gosling says that aspect of the film stands as a refutation to the alarming number of people who somehow still believe that the moon landing was faked.

"I'd be excited for someone who feels that way to see this film," says the actor. "Because it takes such a human approach. The human sacrifice involved. I think it would be interesting to hear what they thought after [seeing the film]."

LOWDOWN:
Who: Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle
What: First Man
When: In cinemas next Thursday