The moon-landing movie has sparked a furore for failing to show the planting of a US flag. But Hollywood has a long, complicated relationship with the final frontier
A giant leap for mankind or purely an American achievement? Nobody much cared at the time, but half a century later the moon landings have unexpectedly become a political litmus test. Blame the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling in particular, the moment when (spoiler alert), after a lifetimes training and tragedy, Armstrong finally sets foot on the moon. We see him descending the lunar lander, we see the astronaut roaming the lunar surface, we see him turn to look back at Earth, but what we dont see is the precise moment when Armstrong planted the US flag. Many have decided, even without having seen the movie, that this is one small step too far.
This is total lunacy, tweeted the Republican senator Marco Rubio. The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasnt a UN mission.
The actor James Woods weighed in: Omitting the seminal moment in the midst of mankinds greatest achievement seems a purposeful denigration of the 400,000 Americans who accomplished it. The conservative columnist Bill Kristol called it a foolish and pernicious falsification of history. Even Buzz Aldrin, Armstrongs Apollo 11 crewmate, tweeted two pictures of himself standing on the moon next to the stars and stripes, annotated with hashtags including #proudtobeanAmerican, #freedom, #honor and #onenation.
Inevitably, the news was relayed to Donald Trump, whose response raised the affair to full-on culture-war level. Its almost like theyre embarrassed at the achievement coming from America; I think its a terrible thing, Trump told the Daily Caller, a conservative news site. When you think of Neil Armstrong and when you think of the landing on the moon, you think about the American flag. For that reason, I wouldnt even want to watch the movie. Wait till he finds out Ryan Gosling is Canadian.
Chazelles omission of the flag-planting was deliberate, but not politically motivated, the director said in response. My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of Americas mission to the moon particularly Neil Armstrongs personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours This film is about one of the most extraordinary accomplishments not only in American history, but in human history.
Chazelle was supported by Armstrongs sons and James R Hansen, author of the nonfiction book First Man, from which the movie was adapted. In a joint statement, they said: We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite.
In the same week that Nikes sponsorship of NFL knee-taker-in-chief Colin Kaepernick compelled some Americans to set fire to their trainers, Chazelles movie is another illustration of how polarised US life has become, especially when it comes to the flag. Depending on which end of the political scale you are, First Man is either being wilfully interpreted as political when its stated agenda is the opposite, or it is another case of liberal Hollywood trolling conservatives, rewriting history and generally making America less great.
If Chazelle had intended to go full liberal, he would surely have called the movie First Person, but the director may have had other reasons for ditching the flag-planting scene. With awards season approaching, First Man was always going to be an Oscar shot, especially given Chazelles near miss in 2017, when the best picture award was mistakenly handed to La La Land, rather than Moonlight.