This has now thrown “First Man,” a major new movie about one of America’s greatest heroes, into the path of some hard cultural head winds. Back in 1969, in the real world, Neil Armstrong and fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin spent some 10 minutes raising the American flag on the lunar surface. But in the film version the flag scene is nowhere to be found. When the question of why came up last month at the Venice Film Festival, Ryan Gosling, the actor who plays Armstrong in “First Man,” stumbled with his answer, explaining that the landing was a “human achievement” and that Armstrong didn’t view himself as an “American hero.”
The result was outrage, especially from many of the folks who’ve felt insulted by Hollywood’s recent history. Although I count myself among those who think Hollywood should stay out of politics, I think the folks railing against “First Man” are wrong.
The history here is instructive. Although the lunar flag-planting may seem like a given in hindsight, for months before the flight of Apollo 11 there was a debate within the federal government and in the press as to the wisdom of doing it. The argument for the flag was that the voyage was an entirely American effort that was paid for by American taxpayers, who deserved to see their flag planted in the lunar regolith. The argument against was that it could cast the landing in the eyes of the world as a nationalistic exercise, diminishing what was otherwise indisputably a triumph of American values and ideals, not to mention a demonstration of our technical superiority over our great adversary, the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, just a few months before the flight, Congress ordered NASA to put up the flag. The result, a rushed bit of engineering, was a set of spindly tubes holding a government-issued flag valued at around $5 and, since there was no room in the moon lander, flown clamped to a leg of the vehicle. Armstrong and Aldrin put up the flag and saluted it, then got on to other business.
As it turned out, people across the world didn’t much care. What they saw and celebrated were two fellow human beings walking on the surface of the moon. I watched Apollo 11 on a battered television set at Fort Lewis, Wash., along with other Army officers, most of us just recently returned from Vietnam. The picture was so fuzzy I don’t even recall the flag, only the ghostly images of Neil and Buzz moving about. We fresh Vietnam vets were just relieved that our boys on the moon were alive and well.
“First Man” the movie is based on an excellent book that has the same title, but also the subtitle “The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.” It is not the story of the moon-landing but of the world-famous astronaut himself. Author James R. Hansen worked hard to reveal a man who comes across in the book as a kind of techno-Atticus Finch — someone who never says outright what he believes but demonstrates it through his actions.
I suspect this vision of Armstrong affected the filmmakers. No one ever saw Armstrong do a fist-pump; he just didn’t do that kind of thing. Raising the flag on the moon might be perceived as that kind of gesture and therefore jar the flow of a film trying to uncover the inner workings of a man who spent a lifetime keeping his emotions in check. Although I personally would have included the flag-raising — it was a moment of rare lightheartedness between Neil and Buzz — I understand from experience the decisions that writers and directors sometimes make to fit their vision of their characters, even ones based on real people.
Because I’m interested in space history, and because I think “First Man” will be a unique and dramatic view of an important American who most of us never got to know very well, I will see this movie. If it’s anything like the book, I fully expect it to move me to even greater appreciation for my country, a nation that saw fit to attach to one of the moon lander legs not just its national flag but also this honest and humble declaration: “We Came In Peace for All Mankind.”