ONE GI­ANT CON­TRO­VERSY?

Kentish Gazette Canterbury & District - What's On - - CINEMA - with Mike Shaw

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.

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