The tiny violin plays a booming concerto for Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle, he of the innocuously crowd-pleasing films that find themselves, somehow, as semi-misplaced lightning rods for vitriolic cultural discourse about what it means to be American.
When he directed La La Land, he likely never expected that having Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone blandly sing and dance in the clouds would eventually waltz its way to becoming an avatar for Trump’s America and its supporters in a societal war against Moonlight and the progressive values that were attached to it and its fans.
And, we’d imagine, when he set out to direct a biopic of astronaut Neil Armstrong—seriously, could there be a more “sure, why not?” subject for a film?—he likely never thought that it would somehow become wrapped up in an anti-American political movement and blasted for being unpatriotic.
Hell hath no fury like people who criticize art without ever having seen it, so you can imagine the imbecilic righteousness when opinions started to fly about First Man’s patriotism after the film premiered to a small group of critics and industry members at the Venice Film Festival. (It finally hits theaters this weekend.)
Pinning down the origin point of political hysteria is a bit like trying to catch a bee in a thimble, but somehow word got out that the iconic image of Armstrong planting the U.S. flag on the moon isn’t in the film. The reaction to that whisper escalated to bellowed accusations approaching treason.
The term gaslighting is sort of omnipresent these days, and there’s been enough of it surrounding First Man to blast its news cycle off to space.
Marco Rubio, the person I turn to first when I want an opinion about cultural offerings, called the film “total lunacy” in a tweet reacting to the report that the flag-planting isn’t depicted in the movie. This is a time in our country when we need to see things like Ryan Gosling putting a pole in fake dirt, he said!
It is “a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together,” he tweeted. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
(That’s another running theme of this ridiculous controversy, that because it doesn’t contain a scene that some people wanted it to have—in itself a ludicrous, tail-chasing argument to make about art that someone else creates—it is not just anti-American, but part of a greater agenda to diminish U.S. nationalism.)
Because we’ve entered the Upside Down where people like this are talking credibly about movies, Dinesh D’Souza weighed in, blaming “the left” for this blight on our national history, saying it “pretends American flags weren’t important to the moon landing.” (This whole time we thought it was engineers, science, and the astronauts themselves, but it was a piece of cloth that got us to the moon.) “The makers of #FirstManMovie went to the trouble of cut them out even from the astronauts’ uniforms,” he tweeted. (That’s not remotely true.) “The symbolism was clearly important to them!” (No one remotely suggested that.)
Fanning the flames of the bad press, Buzz Aldrin seemingly condemned the movie by tweeting out photos of the actual 1969 flag planting, with the hashtag #proudtobeanAmerican. And, naturally, Donald Trump spoke up, telling the Daily Caller he would not be seeing the film because it does not have this scene. “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America, I think it’s a terrible thing,” he said.
This is insane!
Truly, utterly insane. Of all the ridiculous controversies that have sprouted up around pop culture, this may rank as the stupidest. And that is a word we use with extreme gravity.
We’ve seen the film, which, based on the aforementioned reactions, apparently disqualifies us from commenting authoritatively on it. Forget whether or not patriotism should even be a mission of a movie, or a barometer of its success as a film—the word for that, folks, is propaganda—First Man nonetheless may be the most patriotic drama we’ve seen since American Sniper.
The moon landing comes near the end of the 140-minute film. The previous two hours are spent depicting the American ingenuity and brain trust, not to mention the selfless bravery, required to put Armstrong and his team on the moon, focusing on the sacrifice they and their families were forced to make.
You spend that time with Armstrong and his wife, Janet (played by Claire Foy), learning what was required of their marriage in order to make planting that flag possible, about how the mission both changed him as a father and was inspired by fatherhood—Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, died from a brain tumor in 1961. We meet and then mourn men who died training for the mission.
All of that time is well-spent, because when the Apollo 11 mission does land on the moon and we watch Armstrong step out onto the surface, it is one of the most emotionally thrilling, cinematically transfixing film sequences you’ll see this year. You’ll likely get chills, or maybe even swell with tears. That feeling is empathy—for what it took to get there, and for the unbelievable accomplishment that it is. But it’s also pride. Pride in being American.
The flag is there, idiots. No, you don’t see it planted. But you see it twice. One of the shots, in particular, lingers on it, showing its stars and stripes in contrast to the stark majesty of the moon’s surface, an association that attests to our country’s greatness.
You could even call the flag a visual motif of the film. You first see it much earlier in the running time. Armstrong’s son proudly raises it in front of the family’s house when his father leaves for an earlier mission. It flaps in the wind, in one of those beautiful sun-kissed camera shots that billows with Americana. It’s a stirring moment. Your heart thumps, instinctively beating in time to “God Bless America.”
A lot of the early controversy surrounding the movie came in reaction to a comment Gosling made, about how the film focused on the person not the country, suggesting that the flag furor was misplaced.
“I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” he said, adding that this is how Armstrong would have liked the moment portrayed. “I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero. From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”
The brouhaha parsing the statement that Armstrong didn’t view himself as an American hero is predictable in a world where nuance has gone extinct. But Gosling’s comments are actually quite astute, in fact precisely underlining what it was about Armstrong that did make him an American hero: the fact that he didn’t see himself as one.
The most remarkable thing about his performance and what we learn about Armstrong through it is how unassuming and introspective he was. He had no interest in the bombast that today we confuse for valor or, to stick with the theme, patriotism. He’s a person who considered the use of his talents a duty, and that duty didn’t make him any more or less heroic than his fellow man. The greatest heroes in history are the ones who didn’t set out to become one. That is the American spirit, and crystallizing that in a movie is about as patriotic as a film can get.