The “First Man” American flag controversy is one giant leap for ignorance

Launch this whole kerfuffle into orbit.
Launch this whole kerfuffle into orbit.
Image: Universal Pictures
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This all started with a Marco Rubio tweet.

Last week (Aug. 31), the Republican US senator from Florida responded to an article about how First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic that debuted recently at the Venice Film Festival, does not include the exact moment that the renowned American astronaut planted his country’s flag on the lunar surface. Rubio, who has not seen the film, was upset:

“This is total lunacy,” he tweeted. “And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

Rubio’s tweet ignited a firestorm of criticism of the film by capital-‘p’-patriots who, like Rubio—and this is important—have not actually seen First Man. Apparently some are now calling for a boycott of the space drama, based on the notion that it does not feature a scene of the literal planting of the flag. Between this and people destroying their own clothes to protest Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ad, this has been a banner week for performative flag-respecters.

The most confounding part of this half-baked, reactionary controversy, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott pointed out, is that First Man is actually a deeply patriotic, American-centric film. Based on the book of the same name by James R. Hansen, the film tells the story of Armstrong’s path from young, curious man to US navy aviator to NASA astronaut and, finally, to the first man to walk on the Moon. Those who have seen the movie say, flag-planting or no flag-planting, First Man celebrates American ingenuity.

What’s worse: Though the film might not show Armstrong placing the flag on the Moon’s surface, it’s nonetheless filled with American iconography, including several images of the flag on the moon.

The controversy has gotten so out of hand that Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark Armstrong, were forced to issue a statement defending First Man and how the film depicts their father’s experience:

Although Neil didn’t see himself that way, he was an American hero.  He was also an engineer and a pilot, a father and a friend, a man who suffered privately through great tragedies with incredible grace. This is why, though there are numerous shots of the American flag on the moon, the filmmakers chose to focus on Neil looking back at the earth, his walk to Little West Crater, his unique, personal experience of completing this journey, a journey that has seen so many incredible highs and devastating lows.

Director Damien Chazelle also responded, explaining that the decision to not include the physical planting of the American flag was not a political statement, but rather a cinematic choice. “My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon—particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours,” Chazelle said.

That this premature criticism, based on ignorance, was even allowed to bubble into an actual controversy is beyond unfortunate, but it follows in the path of similar reactions to awards-caliber films—especially ones that portray American history. Americans will always raise questions about films that deal in the country’s past, whether it’s the New York Times upset by its minimized role in uncovering the Pentagon Papers in The Post; the controversial part torture played in gleaning information from terrorists in Zero Dark Thirty; or Selma being too hard on former US president Lyndon B. Johnson.

Up to a point, such quibbles are a part of any robust civic discourse, as a society parses the events of distant (or even quite recent) history. But this one, to be sure, is the dumbest quibble to date.