Ryan Gosling, who has become Hollywood’s go-to leading man for roles that require steely aloofness, might not look or sound exactly like Armstrong did, but he captures the astronaut’s nature, according to those who knew him. Armstrong was extremely private, a tough nut to crack. Some of his closest friends reportedly didn’t even know he had a daughter who died.

In the film, Armstrong’s friend and fellow astronaut, Ed White, asks him about Karen, but he’s not interested in talking about it. He’s laser-focused on the mission at hand. More tragedy soon strikes; White and two other astronauts, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, are killed in a catastrophic fire during a pre-launch rehearsal test for Apollo 1. Armstrong retreats further into himself and his work, while Janet (Claire Foy, who’s phenomenal in a mostly thankless role) and the couple’s two young sons worry that Neil will experience a similar fate.

When it’s finally time to go to the Moon, Janet forces Neil to sit the boys down and tell them their dad might never come home. The older son asks if he’ll ever see his father again, and Neil responds with the same canned non-response he gave to a reporter earlier: “We have every intention of coming back.” At that point, it’s clear that not only might he not make it back to Earth in one piece, but he also might not care that much whether he does.

first man gosling
Image: Universal Pictures

Of course, we all know that he does return, and that Apollo 11 is a world-changing success. There were no explosions, no miraculous saves like in the infamous Apollo 13 mission that launched a year later. As these things go, Armstrong’s mission to the moon was smooth sailing.

Instead, the film shows us what blasting off into space does to a person, and, more importantly, what it can do for a person. For Neil Armstrong, the trip into the unknown is a trip into his own soul—he’s far less afraid to confront the wonders and perils of the universe than he is his own heartache. The mission isn’t a distraction from his grief; it’s very much a part of it.

For that reason, the film’s moon landing scene is a thrilling, powerful catharsis even though we’ve known the end result all along. Armstrong gets to the moon, says those famous words, bops around the lunar surface, and then, in one of the year’s most poignant cinematic moments, he finally says goodbye to his daughter. We half-expect to see her somewhere out there, waiting for him. But all he finds is dust.

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