ONE GIANT CONTROVERSY?
The Neil Armstrong biopic First Man has just premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it received great reviews and immediately became an Oscar contender.
But not everyone was impressed. The movie doesn’t include a key moment from the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and some historians are deeply unhappy.
The film has been made by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash and La La Land) and stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon.
It follows Armstrong’s journey to becoming the first human to walk on the surface of the Moon, but omits the iconic moment of the American flag being planted on the Moon (although the flag is present in the film).
The anger over the decision took the filmmakers by surprise, so Ryan Gosling was deployed to try and defuse the situation, saying that the “giant leap for mankind should not be seen as an example of American greatness” because that’s apparently not how Armstrong saw it; not as an American victory, but something that “transcended countries and borders”.
“I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” Gosling said. “I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible.” “He was reminding everyone that he was just the tip of the iceberg – and that’s not just to be humble, that’s also true,” the actor continued. “So 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 film has been praised for telling the story from the perspective of the astronauts, and Gosling argued that further supports the decision to leave out the planting of the American flag.
But I’m not sure that argument holds much water. Claiming “I wasn’t aiming for my biographical film to be scientifically or historically accurate”, is a bit like saying “I wanted to miss that penalty.” However, even in the 1960s, the Moon-mission wasn’t entirely free of controversy.
In 1961, then-president JFK declared that the US “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” A Gallup poll suggested that 58 per cent of Americans were opposed to the idea.
As 1969 approached, costs soared (the final cost of Apollo was north of $25 billion) and large sections of the public questioned the spend. Then, when it came to the issue of planting a flag, not everyone saw eye-to-eye. JFK first proposed using an American flag, saying: “…for the eyes of the world now look into space, to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”
But there are political consequences when you plant a nation’s flag on the Moon. Though it would be Americans landing on another world for the first time, they were representatives of all humanity, and traditionally planting a flag usually means staking a claim. NASA decided to explore whether other nations would see it as an act of sovereignty or just a piece of symbolism. A committee looked at different options such as planting the UN flag, leaving a solar wind experiment that looked like an American flag and leaving a series of smaller flags of all the nations of the world.
In the end, the committee decided that it was alright to just use the American flag along with a plaque on the lunar lander reading: “Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” That famous plaque doesn’t have any flags on it, just pictures of the east and west hemispheres. Ultimately, when the Moon landing eventually happened, there was no outcry regarding the flag or plaque.
But even if there was, it happened, and nothing can change that, so why should the film gloss over it? It strikes me as an odd decision for Damien Chazelle to make, but perhaps it’s being overblown.
We’ll be able to see for ourselves whether it’s disrespectful, antiAmerican or just a lunar-storm in a teacup when the film is released in the UK on 12 October. In the meantime, we need to get back to the serious business at hand: making fun of the modern Star Wars films.