Sparked by Ryan Gosling's comments at a Venice Film Festival press conference, and fueled by a critical tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio, a narrative emerged that awards hopeful space drama First Man was minimizing the uniquely American achievement of astronaut Neil Armstrong. More specifically, there was some concern that the Universal film depicting NASA's Apollo 11 mission didn't properly depict the American flag planted on the Moon in 1969.
This is not so, according to Neil Armstrong's sons, who are speaking out to note that "there are numerous shots of the American flag on the moon" in First Man and that "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."
At a Venice press conference on Aug. 29, the film's star, Ryan Gosling, said he believed Armstrong's moonwalk "was widely regarded not as an American, but as a human achievement." The comments spread on social media and were amplified by critics who viewed them as insufficiently patriotic. Gosling also said at the press conference, "I don't think Neil viewed himself as an American hero, quite the opposite."
Rubio then fanned the flames on Aug. 31 when he responded to a news outlet's headline that claimed "Neil Armstrong movie 'First Man' omits the American flag." The senator wrote in reply, "This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission,on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission."
Critics, so far, have praised the film, with the title sitting at 89 percent fresh on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. In a review at Venice, Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney hailed the drama as "a strikingly intelligent treatment of a defining moment for America that broadens the tonal range of Chazelle, clearly a versatile talent, after Whiplash and La La Land. What is perhaps most notable is the film’s refusal to engage in the expected jingoistic self-celebration that such a milestone would seem to demand."
The film, directed by La La Land helmer Damien Chazelle, is an early Oscar season front-runner. It premiered in Venice, will screen at the Toronto Film Festival and is set to hit theaters stateside on Oct. 12.
In his own Aug. 31 statement, Chazelle explained his portrayal of the moon landing in the drama. "In First Man I show the American flag standing on the lunar surface, but the flag being physically planted into the surface is one of several moments of the Apollo 11 lunar EVA that I chose not to focus upon," the director stated.
Chazelle added: "To address the question of whether this was a political statement, the answer is no. 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. I wanted the primary focus in that scene to be on Neil’s solitary moments on the moon — his point of view as he first exited the LEM, his time spent at Little West Crater, the memories that may have crossed his mind during his lunar EVA. This was a feat beyond imagination; it was truly a giant leap for mankind. This film is about one of the most extraordinary accomplishments not only in American history, but in human history. My hope is that by digging under the surface and humanizing the icon, we can better understand just how difficult, audacious and heroic this moment really was."
Below is the full note, attributed to Neil Armstrong's sons, Rick and Mark, and First Man author James R. Hansen.
We’ve read a number of comments about the film today and specifically about the absence of the flag planting scene, made largely by people who haven’t seen the movie. As we’ve seen it multiple times, we thought maybe we should weigh in.
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 America 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.
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.
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.