Forty-nine years ago the United States of America brought the entire world to a standstill when it sent the first men to the moon. 

Sadly, epic adventures of that scale haven't been much in evidence since, but this week the groundbreaking era of Neil Armstrong and the Apollo space program is retraced in the thrilling new film First Man, starring Ryan Gosling, 37, as Armstrong, alongside Claire Foy, Brian D'Arcy James and Ciaran Hinds.

Foy, 34, is probably best known for her role as Queen Elizabeth in the mega-hit Netflix series The Crown. Raised in England of Irish parentage (they hailed from Dublin and Kildare) she embraced her roots early on by becoming a step dancer and growing up in a hardworking family of Irish immigrants.

Read more: View from Ireland 49 years ago when America landed on the moon

Ryan Gosling in a still from First Man

Ryan Gosling in a still from First Man

Foy plays Janet Armstrong, Neil's stoic and principled wife, and she makes you understand more than anyone else in the film the simple human price of all the unprecedented ambition around her.

I mean think of it, if you're reading this on your laptop or iPhone right now you are already carrying more computer processing power in your hand than all of Nasa mission control did in 1969.

That should help you grasp the sheer courage the first moon shot actually took. In these politically polarized times, its worth remembering that it was working together that made America great and First Man makes that argument in every frame.

Gosling plays Armstrong with the kind of stoic machismo of so many men of the time (the 1960s). That makes his onscreen portrait remote and hard to know, since he holds the world at arm's length, the better to escape its grasp. But it often makes him too elusive, which is problematic in a film that aims to explore his life and achievement.

Ryan Gosling in a still from First Man

Ryan Gosling in a still from First Man

What we learn about him from the beginning is that is filled with contradictions. Armstrong is a young parent who is completely devoted to his toddler daughter Karen (who, tragically, is diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her brain stem). So the early part of the film pulls you closer to Gosling and Foy's characters as they struggle with this terrible challenge.

Like so many men of the era though, when the child passes he doesn't want to talk about it, even to his own wife. We can clearly see what the loss has cost him but we never see him openly address it, or give us any real insight into what might be going on inside of him.

Instead, Armstrong throws himself into his scientific work on the space program and to the imminent prospect of being picked for the first ever moon mission.

Director Damien Chazelle makes this process look completely fascinating, focusing not only on the scientific and physical challenges (how do you dock a spacecraft that is spinning faster than a top?) of the first ever Nasa test flights, but on the human cost to the brave men (in this era they were all men) of the program.

First Man

First Man

How brave were they? Well, would you get into a tin can and travel almost a quarter of a million miles in it to a moon you might never return from? The margin for error was tiny, after all.

All it would take would be for one thing to go wrong (low fuel, an imperfect docking, a failure to launch) for the men to be stranded without hope of escape. That's the kind of courage we are talking about, the kind that doesn't loudly draw attention to itself, the kind that speaks for itself.

The moon is 4.53 billion years old. It has looked down at us from the earliest times to the are when the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago and yet we have only set foot there for the first time 49 years ago. So the scale of Nasa's achievement, given that unfathomable time frame, is incredible.

What director Chazelle excels at is storytelling, in charting the progress of his ragtag crew of engineers and pilots as they tackle every challenge that comes their way. The film also reminds us of the sheer human cost of the space program, which at one point saw Janet Armstrong attending four funerals in one year.

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Some reviewers have been citing the film's patriotism as if planting an American flag on the moon was why Nasa undertook the entire program. But the truth is far more inspirational.

Although there is no question the American scientists were eager to beat the Russians at the biggest scientific challenge of all, a moonwalk, they undertook their journey in the full knowledge that it would benefit all humankind, not just the United States.

On the surface, First Man looks like surefire Oscar bait. It has a rousing score, compelling central performances, tight direction and terrific storyboarding. But as it unspools it becomes clear that what really sells this film – the real-life adventure that was taken by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michal Collins – is the terrible danger that hangs over the enterprise from start to finish.

Alright, history teaches they made it there and made it back home to earth, but as you watch I guarantee you will be riveted by every second of their extraordinary journey. You'll be moved too.

First Man reminds us of what is best about the United States of America and what has been lost to all the partisan political posturing since Armstrong's time. As the film makes clear, the 1960s had their own divided politics, but they also had a government that was willing to reach across the aisle for the greater good of the country.

Since Nasa's heyday in the 1960s its star and its funding have of course declined (the Apollo space mission finally concluded in 1972). What replaced it? Well, these days we briefly heard about Donald Trump's mysterious and very quickly aborted Space Force.

That was just two months ago, by the way, but already its sunk like a stone in the public's consciousness, hasn't it? And what exactly was Space Force anyway? Some reboot of Star Wars without the lightsabers?

The moon was a giant challenge because it was there. A fact, not a fiction. So the challenge was as extraordinary as it was simple. Could science allow men to travel safely there and back again? In 1969, as First Man shows us, Neil Armstrong led that challenge and changed the world forever.

Chazelle's new film is mandatory viewing because, although we don't really get to know Armstrong the man in this emotionally distant film, we do get to see the life-transforming journey that he undertook and that fact is really all the inspiration we need.

First Man has come along just at the time when it is calculated to do the best, in a cynical age that has stopped looking up and desperately needs to remember how to again. Don't miss it.

First Man opens October 12.