[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]s the fall movie season began, one of the major Oscar contenders was First Man, the film about astronaut Neil Armstrong and the successful quest by the American space program to put a man on the moon.
The film represented the re-teaming of a director (Damien Chazelle) and a star (Ryan Gosling) whose last film (La La Land) was an awards juggernaut, even spending about two minutes as the Best Picture of 2016. Space movies have a long history as a dependable genre, and Armstrong’s story is a naturally cinematic one that had never before been the subject of a standalone movie.
So it was somewhat strange that the main story told in the media, leading up to First Man’s release was… its supposed lack of American flags.
Shortly after the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in early September, word got out that First Man does not in fact depict the famous moment when Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon. And the usual suspects reacted with their usual apoplexy.
“They’re scared to use the American flag”
“This is where our country’s going,” Ainsley Earhardt said on Fox & Friends. “They don’t think America is great―they want to kneel for the flag, for the anthem―it was never great. This is the direction―they’re scared to use the American flag. It’s Hollywood.”
“This is total lunacy,” Senator Marco Rubio tweeted. “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.”
President Trump himself, perhaps inevitably, later weighed in, stating that “It’s almost like they’re proud of, it’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America. I think it’s a terrible thing.” While stopping short of calling for a boycott, the president went on to vow that “I wouldn’t even want to watch the movie.”
Those who pushed this controversy likely all have one thing in common: They haven’t seen First Man.
A Change.org petition to boycott the film over the flag flap garnered about 1,000 signatures. The controversy was seen as a reason why the film disappointed at the box office – it earned just $16 million domestically in its opening weekend – and has begun to recede from the Oscar conversation.
Those who pushed this controversy likely all have one thing in common: They haven’t seen First Man. Because to call it a liberal screed against American values is pretty much the exact opposite of what the film actually is.
First of all, there are American flags everywhere in the film. It’s in numerous ways a love letter to traditional, 1950s-style Middle American values. A lot of the sort of stuff, in fact, that conservatives normally complain can never be found in movies anymore.
The Flag Was Still There
The omission of the flag on the moon isn’t even really an omission, as we can see it in one shot during the moon sequence. But the filmmakers chose to build the moon landing part around a different emotional climax, one that’s the film’s most highly effective moment.
I say this as someone who didn’t especially love First Man. It’s very uneven, never quite gets a handle on Neil Armstrong, and its only truly magical sequence is at the end. But I came to that determination after actually seeing it.
It’s an act, a bunch of half-hearted cultural posturing. But even beyond that, it’s beginning to be a troubling trend.
I understand that this is bad-faith, and not real. It’s an act, a bunch of half-hearted cultural posturing. But even beyond that, it’s beginning to be a troubling trend.