Buzz Aldrin standing next to the American flag and sporting a patriotic tie.
politicians and pundits began expressing outrage over the fact that the film doesn’t show the Apollo 11 astronauts planting the flag on the moon. And as things do in the cable news and internet outrage machine, that dramatic choice quickly morphed into the plainly false assertion that the flag doesn’t appear on the moon in the film (it does, twice) or in the film at all (it definitely does), and that the flag was omitted (it wasn’t) to either to appease Chinese audiences or as another anti-American ploy by liberal Hollywood.
All of those ideas fall apart once you see the movie, and thus they’re somewhat mystifying to those who saw the film during its September festival runs in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto.
The film didn’t do great last weekend when it opened. Whether or not that’s due to the flag controversy, I don’t know. I’m sure angry conservatives would like to think it is all about that.
After reading a couple of articles and reviews, I began speculating that conservatives riled themselves up over the claims started by pundits who hadn’t even seen the movie yet; and this ballooned into a big brouhaha of exaggerated anti-American claims. Of course, Ryan Gosling’s statements addressing the controversy did the film no favor in putting out the fires. It only served to oxygen-enrich the environment of outrage blowing up in conservative circles.
I decided to go see the film last Thursday, and judge for myself. In my opinion, if anything, the film is patriotic; and very much in the spirit of showcasing American grit and determination to win the space race.
The thing is, the film centers itself around the life story of Neil Armstrong and his relationship with his family; and it uses the death of his daughter as a driving theme throughout the film, culminating with the only real fictionalized part of the film toward the end, to bring the emotional resonance full circle, on how Karen Armstrong’s death had affected him. It gave the screen persona of Neil Armstrong closure [and apparently his daughter was, in fact, very much on his mind while on the moon; so just liberties were taken with the physical manifestation of his act- I don’t want to give away spoilers (newsflash- we landed on the moon! We Americans did! Well….specifically Armstrong and Aldrin with everyone who supported the mission, figuratively did so) because I want people to go out and see the film].
When seeing the film, there is no mistake- unquestionably no mistake!- that it was an American endeavor and achievement. The film presents the Cold War race against the Soviet’s space program; the sacrifices made in lives lost; the dangers Armstrong faced in almost losing his life on occasion; and in the American flag shown throughout the film. This includes people rejoicing throughout the world taking pride in America’s achievement (which takes it to the level of worldwide pride in a mankind accomplishment!).
Conservatives shoot themselves in the foot if they really are hell-bent on making the flag-planting absence an issue of contention (the flag is shown on the moon, twice; just not the 120 seconds of fumbling around with trying to get the flag to plant into the surface). Don’t lose the forest for the trees; or, it’s like a finger pointing to the moon; with some people only enamored and fixated on the finger. The flag does figure in the movie. And it is important. And yes, it could have been dramatized and taken up only a few seconds of flim; or lingered and made it the centerpiece to appease conservatives; perhaps with bombastic 2 minute music; maybe rocking it with Madison Rising’s National Anthem rendition in the background…
What First Man is not, however, is an unpatriotic film.
This was the line of criticism in late August, long before the film came out. After the movie debuted at the Venice Film Festival, reports began to trickle outthat First Man did not feature an iconic moment of the moon landing: the planting of the American flag in lunar soil. The omission prompted an angry response from conservative leaders and writers who saw the decision as bordering on treasonous. Some comments from Ryan Gosling, the actor who portrays Armstrong—that the moon landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” that Gosling didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero”—only made it worse.
“It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America,” President Donald Trump said. “I think it’s a terrible thing.”
The President? He hadn’t seen it. He’s reacting to the pundits’ (who hadn’t seen it) claims.
“This is total lunacy,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
The Senator? Hadn’t seen it.
“History sure can be inconvenient when patriotism makes you queasy,” wrote a critic at the National Review.
A tweet from Buzz Aldrin, who joined Armstrong on the Apollo mission to the moon, that included the hashtags “#proudtobeanAmerican #freedom #honor #onenation” further fanned the flames. (A producer on the film later told me that Aldrin was consulted frequently during filming, and liked the completed movie.)
First Man is a 141-minute commercial for a uniquely American brand of determination and achievement. It provides a tour of increasingly advanced engineering: We join Armstrong in nerve-wracking, claustrophobic rides aboard an X-15 plane, a Gemini capsule, a lunar-landing simulator, and then, finally, the Apollo spacecraft. It depicts years of extensive training: We see astronauts braving the physical rigors of spaceflight firsthand, their bodies bruised, bloodied, singed, and burned. And it shows the intense resolve to continue in the face of loss: We grieve with Armstrong at the funerals of astronauts whose missions ended in tragedy.
Such moments clearly illustrate the stakes of what the United States was trying to do and the sacrifices it had to endure, which makes its ultimate success that much more triumphant.
If critics want explicitly American symbols, there are plenty. The flag appears on space suits and in archival news footage of elated crowds, and on the surface of the moon as the Apollo spacecraft departs after a successful mission. A creatively shot scene takes the viewer up a tall elevator on the launchpad, revealing each letter emblazoned on the side of a rocket as it goes: U-N-I-T-E-D-S-T-A-T-E-S. John F. Kennedy makes an appearance on a television screen. The camera lingers on the quiet moments in which Armstrong gingerly climbs down the ladder of the lunar module, presses his boot into the soil, and tells mission control about his one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, with such similar tone and inflection as the real Armstrong did that the sound of the transmission gives you chills.
First Man does take a subtler approach compared to other films about significant achievements in the American space program, like in Apollo 13, the harrowing tale of an in-flight malfunction and the effort to return astronauts safely to Earth. The flight controllers, the heroic protagonists of that film, are minor supporting characters in First Man. But that’s the point. First Man is based on a biography of Armstrong, and the story of the moon landing is told in the confines of his life—the death of his young daughter Karen eight years before the moon landing, the trauma of losing his friends, and the constant current of fear that he may not come home to his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their two sons. Viewers spend more time in Armstrong’s kitchen than they do in the spacecraft that takes him to the moon.
It is for this reason that the narrative crest of the film is not the planting of the American flag, or the first step, or a gleeful Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) using the moon’s low gravity to hop across the surface. The emotional peak comes when Armstrong wanders off on his own and stands at the edge of a crater. He opens a curled-up glove to reveal
Read the rest The Atlantic, if you want the spoiler.
“Although Neil didn’t see himself that way, he was an American hero. He was also an engineer and a pilot, a father and a friend, a man who suffered privately through great tragedies with incredible grace. This is why, though there are numerous shots of the American flag on the moon, the filmmakers chose to focus on Neil looking back at the earth, his walk to Little West Crater, his unique, personal experience of completing this journey, a journey that has seen so many incredible highs and devastating lows.
This is a film that focuses on what you don’t know about Neil Armstrong. It’s a film that focuses on things you didn’t see or may not remember about Neil’s journey to the moon. The filmmakers spent years doing extensive research to get at the man behind the myth, to get at the story behind the story. It’s a movie that gives you unique insight into the Armstrong family and fallen American Heroes like Elliot See and Ed White. It’s a very personal movie about our dad’s journey, seen through his eyes.
This story is human and it is universal. Of course, it celebrates an American achievement. It also celebrates an achievement ‘for all mankind,’ as it says on the plaque Neil and Buzz left on the moon. It is a story about an ordinary man who makes profound sacrifices and suffers through intense loss in order to achieve the impossible.
In short, we do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite. But don’t take our word for it. We’d encourage everyone to go see this remarkable film and see for themselves.”
As the Armstrongs and others who have seen First Man note, the American flag is clearly visible in a number of shots during the moon landing sequence. There just isn’t a shot that explicitly shows Neil planting it into the moon’s surface. Chazelle himself came out to say that was not a “political statement”; it was merely an artistic decision that had no ill intent behind it.
The film is based directly on James Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong- the only authorized biography. Hansen spent 50 hours interviewing Armstrong for the book. That should count for something when critics who hadn’t seen the film (and some who have who still are critical) say leaving out the flag is historically inaccurate. As mentioned earlier- the flag is shown on the moon.
The film is patriotic. And it is human. It is about ordinary people who do the extraordinary. Who make real sacrifices. It is Neil Armstrong’s personal story, from his vantage point.
More from Vox:
A lot of what has come out in advance about the film is easily debunked once you actually see it. But I’m sure you guys were startled, knowing what the gist of the movie was, and then seeing the backlash after its premiere in Venice from people who hadn’t seen it at all. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, I mean, I think the film is incredibly patriotic. [laughs] It’s hard to walk away from this film without thinking the film is incredibly patriotic.
We wanted this to be a film that whether you’re in a red state or a blue state, or whatever, you can get behind what Neil and Janet stand for and what they did. I certainly think every inch of this film shows it was a true American achievement, but it was also a human achievement.
Part of what we’re trying to do here is get to the humanity underneath. That’s why we focus where we do on the moon — because we’re trying to really get at the humanity of this icon and pierce the veil around him. In the biography, Jim Hansen calls Neil “emotionally tightly packaged,” and he was! It’s not easy to pierce that veil, and we’re very much focused on the personal there.
We just put out a new trailer. It’s my favorite of the trailers. Some will see it as responsive to all the controversy. But actually — well, I don’t think anyone knows this, but Damien cut together that trailer on the last day of shooting.
We were up at Edwards [Air Force Base]; we shot the F-15 landing not on the exact lakebed that Neil landed on, but one right next door … We shot all day, and it was a long day of shooting, at the very end, like back in February, Damien had had [editor] Tom [Cross] cut together some footage and set it to the Kennedy speech. (There’s actually two Kennedy speeches spliced together: the one he gave to Congress, and the one at Rice University.)
Tom threw that together and showed it on a big screen for all the cast and crew who were assembled, in order to say, “This is what the movie’s gonna be.” We all got choked up. We all thought it was amazing.
So it’s funny, because I think some people will see this new trailer as responding to the controversy, but it wasn’t that way at all — it was something Damien did back in February, before this all controversy broke out, because we all thought this is an amazing movie that really can and should play to all sides of the aisle.
The last thing I’ll say on all that: I would really encourage people to see the film. Neil Armstrong was always prepared. He always did his homework. He never spoke unless he not only knew what he was talking about, but had actually researched it out.
In fact, there’s one moment in the movie, at the wake of a pilot who was a friend of Neil’s, where someone says, “Well, this is the pilot’s fault, and you of all people should know because you’re close with this pilot,” and Neil goes, “I wouldn’t pretend to know. I didn’t study what happened, I wasn’t on the team that was looking at the accident. I have no idea whose fault it was.” That very much is Neil. He’s a guy who does his homework.
And so it’s a little bit of a shame that all these people, who might really love the film and find it quite patriotic, are speaking before they see it. That’s very un-Neil.
I literally just wanted the personal moment at Little West crater to be the whole thing.
Then, Damien was like, “No, we should do ‘One small step …’ because it’s so iconic.”
Why leave those familiar images and scenes out of this particular movie, though?
To me, it’s all about what you didn’t know, not what you do know. Everyone has seen “One small step …” Everyone has seen the flag planting, the phone call with Houston.
But what most people don’t know is that Neil wandered off to Little West crater at the end of his little sojourn on the moon. It wasn’t planned. He just wandered off to take a look at the crater. Then the question is, “What did he do there? What did he think about there?”
The thing we have him do there is actually not something I made up — it’s actually conjecture on the part of Jim Hansen, who wrote the biography. Jim, I think, studied Neil more than anyone else on the planet.
And this is what the film centers on. It wasn’t an intentional diss on conservatives; or on America by “Hollywood limousine learjet liberals” with their globalist agendas. That happens; but that wasn’t this.
Josh Singer, the film’s Oscar-winning screenwriter (Spotlight, The Post), took a diplomatic approach to the situation in a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment (watch above).
“In some ways, I was surprised; in other ways, I wasn’t,” said Singer of the uproar. “Neil’s an icon, he’s an American hero, and he means a lot to a lot of people. I knew there was going to be a lot of scrutiny on the film because of that. And this is a real piece of Americana.
“So I understand [if] you hear the flag’s not in the movie, I understand how’d you get upset about that. Now, it is also true that most of these folks who commented didn’t see the movie. The flag is all over the movie. And I think it’s quite patriotic. Obviously we’re fully aware it’s an amazing American achievement as well as an amazing human achievement.”
Chazelle responded to the criticism by insisting that the creative decision was not any kind of political statement. “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon — particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours,” he said. Armstrong’s sons have also countered the criticism by doubling down in their support of the film. “We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest,” they said in a statement. “Quite the opposite.”
Explained Singer, “It’s put the burden on us a little bit to educate the public and to bring them up to speed and say, ‘Hey, actually, the flag’s all over this film.’ And when we got to the moon, we really were focused on Neil and his personal experience up there, and what it might have meant to him… This movie is focused on what you didn’t know and have never seen, as opposed to things you’ve seen a lot of. That’s what we think makes it interesting and worth going to the theater for.”
On another note, the movie isn’t perfect (flag-planting controversy, aside). But I do think it is respectable; respectful. And patriotic. And I do think it’s worth conservatives the time of day to go see this film- especially if they feel slighted. I think most will have their feathers unruffled. Although a few might still stew. Over a nothingburger.
Of course the problem then becomes, if the movie does recover itself at the box office, it will be a slap in the face and rebuke to conservative ire since the narrative has now been written. I’m writing this blogpost in hopes that the narrative can be changed and conservatives take ownership of this movie and send a message to Hollywood that they should be making more conservative, pro-American movies.
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.