Why go to the moon at all?

One question that First Man poses frequently, in the midst of Armstrong’s story, is unavoidable: Why bother? Is the risk of trying to land on the moon really worth the reward? Wouldn’t the money being funneled into space be better spent fixing problems on Earth?

To its credit, First Man doesn’t try to answer that question, opting instead to simply remind us of how others have answered it in the past. The clip of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “we choose to go to the moon” speech plays late in the film, giving one answer: that it’s a challenge America can rise to and overcome, so it is worth doing — and, implicitly, it means victory over the Soviets too.

Another answer it offers is the more pragmatic one that NASA researchers and some politicians seemed to prefer: Going to the moon facilitates scientific discovery and research, so it is worth doing.

But Armstrong gives a third, deeply personal answer early in the film, explaining that leaving the planet, and seeing how thin the atmosphere is that keeps us alive — seeing, with one’s own eyes, just how fragile human life is — gives a different perspective.

Gosling’s portrayal of the stoic Armstrong is so understated that it’s hard to tell how much Armstrong realizes the weight of what he’s saying. But it seems that, having encountered his child’s death, he needs to keep skirting and seeing the curtain that flutters between death and life, in order to make some sense of his own deeply buried grief.

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