The surest sign we live in impossibly polarized times is the fact that marketing campaigns for movies are run more or less like political operations, with partisans on all sides looking for gaffes that will hobble either the business competition or their ideological enemies.
As in politics, some of these controversies are so absurd that they merit little discussion. Such was the case in 2015, when someone anonymously “leaked” to the Drudge Report that “The Revenant” featured a scene in which star Leonardo DiCaprio was “raped” by a bear in the film — not once, but twice. I remain convinced that this was an Oscar-season dirty trick designed to ding the film’s box office potential and awards hopes. If so, it was a gambit that failed, given “The Revenant’s” huge box office and Oscar-trophy hauls.
I’m more interested in the placement of the bear rape story than the story itself; using Drudge as a platform to trash the competition was a genius stroke, in its own way. He’s a news portal for tens of millions of Americans, one whose opinion undoubtedly sways consumers. Moving the combat away from the Hollywood trades and into more general political waters was a portent of things to come.
Which brings me to the fight over “First Man,” debuting this weekend to a modestly disappointing $16.5 million box office haul. The film earned raves on the festival circuit, but its cinematic and artistic achievements were downplayed by conservative media outlets who found themselves vexed by its omission of a scene depicting the actual physical planting of the flag on the moon and interviews from the star and director downplaying American greatness.
“I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” actor Ryan Gosling said, according to a UK Telegraph report. “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.”
Director Damien Chazelle tried to explain why showing the actual physical planting of the flag didn’t make cinematic sense a couple of days later, but the damage was done: Gosling saying that Armstrong did not view himself as an American hero is a cinematic version of the Michael Dukakis tank helmet photo. Leave aside the fact that we repeatedly see the American flag on the surface of the moon. Leave aside the fact that following the moon landing, we see a montage of foreign people genuflecting before the greatness that is America. Gosling’s statement was an iconic blunder, the symbolism of which far outweighed the substance of the film itself.
It’s too bad that Gosling didn’t have a PR handler with extensive experience in the realm of political campaigning to explain to him the necessity of patriotic correctness, because Chazelle’s explanation makes perfect sense. To understand why, it helps to have seen the movie in IMAX.
Audiences watching in an IMAX theater will notice that the movie — previously presented in anamorphic widescreen — blows up to full IMAX size as Armstrong steps out of the lunar lander. Gone is the graininess of the film. Gone is the jittery aesthetic Chazelle has used up until this point. The screen is clarity and stillness. And as we see Armstrong take that iconic first step, and as we hear Armstrong utter his iconic phrase about man and mankind, “First Man” shifts into a sort of impressionistic mode.
Whereas prior to the moon landing the film had taken on a more objective mode of viewing, one in which we see Armstrong achieve feats and we see other American astronauts make the ultimate sacrifice, the camera is now a bit more subjective. Armstrong walks to a crater and stands before it, contemplating the all-too-brief life of his little girl, who died of cancer at the age of two. We see flashbacks of their short time together in between shots of Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and the American flag in the background. But to say they are “in the background” doesn’t really do them justice: this is IMAX, after all, and the images are enormous, bright and clear.
Chazelle and Gosling never shy away from the fact that the space race was a struggle between America and Russia — we see Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech; we hear American engineers talk about the need to one-up the Russians by doing something that seems impossibly hard — and the moon-side shots of the moonshot’s success never play down America’s victory. But this stylized way of showing Armstrong’s solitude in the midst of expanding America’s (and mankind’s) horizons doesn’t leave much room for Armstrong and Aldrin, together, to plant the flag. It would undermine the film’s effort to craft a story about Armstrong’s inner life. It would undercut the emotional gut punch that gives the scene its power.
Now, look: there are plenty of rational reasons one might dislike “First Man.” You could dispute its depiction of Armstrong, claiming it has confused repression for stoicism. You could argue that by focusing on one man, it has undersold the teamwork needed to achieve victory in the space race. You could say it’s slow or it’s boring or that the family drama detracts from the grippingly claustrophobic “action” scenes. I might disagree with some or all of these suggestions, but those would be fair complaints and would deal with the substance of the film.
What’s unfair and what lacks substance is the way a gaffe has been used by those with an ax to grind against an entire industry and a perceived ideological enemy. Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. If Oscar season truly does represent a sort of political campaign, it was inevitable the races would eventually devolve into substance-less, gaffe-oriented coverage abused by partisans to score cheap points.