Spoilers ahead for the movie. There's a lot of tight-lipped stoicism in Damien Chazelle's First Man, which stars Ryan Gosling as legendary astronaut Neil Armstrong. One would expect that the depiction of NASA's early missions be laden with intense seriousness, but even Apollo 13 and, well, Gravity had touches of humor. Not so much in First Man, which details the life of Armstrong shortly before and during his history-making moon landing. But not many knew at the time, and didn't know until historian James R. Hansen's 2005 biography, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, on which the new film is based, that Neil Armstrong had a daughter who died very young. In fact, the new film posits that his daughter's early death is what drove him to NASA and captures the levels to which male emotional repression played a key part in Armstrong's journey to the moon.
First Man opens with Gosling's Neil flying a one-man jet that sounds like it's about to fall to pieces. As he soars nearly beyond the atmosphere, the camera stays close with him, shaking and jolting with force, while Neil himself remains a beacon of calm serenity. It's an immediate reflection of the man's inner turmoil, since, immediately following our loud introduction to Neil, the film switches gears to focus on the Armstrong family's two-year-old daughter Karen, her treatment for a malignant brain tumor, and a father's attempt to both care for his sick child and cope with her inevitable departure. Shortly after Karen's passing, Neil applies to join NASA's Project Gemini. Rather than deal with his intense grief head on, it seems, Neil wants to get as far away as possible, as far as the moon.
Whether or not Neil Armstrong joined NASA as a coping mechanism after his daughter's death is a question that has never been answered. The man was notoriously shy, turned down the majority of interview and appearance requests sent his way, and was often thought of as a recluse for the remainder of his life. "I am comfortable with my level of public discourse," he told The Washington Post when rejecting their request for an interview in the '90s. But Armstrong's sister, June, apparently believed that there was a direct line between Karen's illness and Armstrong's achievements. "The death of his little girl caused him to invest those energies into something very positive and that’s when he started into the space program," she once said, according to The Sun. And First Man screenwriter Josh Singer wrote the script in such a way as to highlight Armstrong's grief. "If I were to write the short story of Neil [Armstrong] going to the moon, it would be about loss," he told Bustle.
So it shouldn't come as a shock then, that Gosling's performance feels a bit stoic. But it isn't just that Armstrong was personally private, the whole film highlights an old-fashioned way of thinking when it comes to men and their willingness and ability to express emotions, both publicly and privately. Neil cries at his daughter's funeral, but he does it alone, in private, muffling his sobs so that the other attendees cannot hear. His work makes him robotic, even emotionless, at times. He neglects to say goodbye to his two other children the night before his mission, forcing the hand of his wife Janet, (Claire Foy) whose emotional outbursts feel downright over-reactionary compared to Neil's blank slate.
The strong, silent type was the male ideal at the time period, and one we're still fighting to reject today. From birth, it seems, boys are taught not to cry, that showing emotion is a sign of weakness, and that any expression of feeling would result in mockery and isolation from one's peers. "A man is strong, we are told, and emotions are weak," writes Noah Brand for The Good Men Project. "Emotions make you vulnerable. Emotions make you less able to fulfill your roles as a protector and a provider. Emotions mean that someone might be called upon to take care of you, instead of you being self-reliant and self-sufficient and independent the way men are supposed to be. Emotions prove you are a human being, instead of an unstoppable success robot."
It's called Normative Male Alexithymia, Dr. Gregg Henriques explains in Psychology Today. "Traditional masculine role socialization channels many men into ways of being such that their masculine identity conflicts with many emotions they feel and what they feel they are 'allowed' to express," and that "they will be shamed and will feel as if they are 'not real men' if they express feelings of vulnerability, dependency needs, weakness, etc."
It's a dangerous way of living, to repress oneself in such a way, considering now it's thought that bottling up one's emotions can lead to physical health problems, per The Huffington Post, and even death in the form of heart attack or suicide. And men from Armstrong's era who were brought up in the macho 1950s and 60s are having a tough time coping with emotions as they age. "Cultural pressures at the time of their youth has left them ill equipped for later life," wrote sociologist Kaitlyn Barnes Langendoerfer in a study, per The Express.
Thankfully, we're moving past that old-fashioned definition of masculinity. The feminist fight against patriarchy will benefit men as well as women, and missions like that of The Good Men Project aid in releasing men from those repressive restraints, so that all men, men like Neil Armstrong, don't have to suffer in silence all the way to the moon.