Hollywood has made a movie about an iconic American event, but ditched the icon. It has created a smarmy, dishonest, and dollar-driven perversion of the truth, akin to making a movie about the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and leaving out a certain hockey game. First Man is director Damien Chazelle’s account of astronaut Neil Armstrong’s arrival on the moon 49 years ago. By all accounts, the film does a magnificent technical job of representing a great voyage of discovery. But in this version, Chazelle and his leading man, Ryan Gosling, excise the image that defined the event: that of the American flag, planted firmly on the surface of the moon. It’s an image for the ages—but not for Chazelle and his star.
“This film is about one of the most extraordinary accomplishments not only in American history, but in human history,” says the director—a first-generation American of French and Canadian extraction and the son of two professors. (This could explain a lot.) “I think [the landing] was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it. We transcended countries and borders,” says Gosling, who is openly Canadian and, understandably, a little defensive about the colossus to the south. But whatever their motives, the two artistes chose to assign full credit for a singular American accomplishment to humanity at large.
Facts matter: the landing was certainly not meant principally to elevate the human spirit. It was a fundamental part of an existential struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union that a scant seven years earlier had come terrifyingly close to incinerating the East Coast of North America. The space race, for those who weren’t around in those days, was about ballistic-missile throw weight, not transcending borders and countries.
The moon landing was an exclusively American achievement; its inflation-adjusted $140 billion cost was paid exclusively by American taxpayers. Apart from German engineer Wernher von Braun, it employed a fundamentally American workforce—and it was dedicated totally to the advancement of America’s global political and national-security goals. It all worked, gloriously. Not only were Armstrong’s first steps on the moon a stunning propaganda victory; they also presaged America’s ultimate Cold War triumph. Moscow tried mightily to compete with American technology, but it couldn’t, and 22 years after the landing, having lost ground all along the way, the Soviet Union collapsed. It’s been a better, safer world since then, Vladimir Putin notwithstanding, and credit accrues solely to American grit and perseverance. This is probably not in the movie, either.
Meanwhile, in 1969 additional ugliness was abroad on the planet—and the bad guys appeared to be winning. South Vietnam was moving ever closer to the reeducation camps; the boat people would soon be fleeing for their lives. In Eastern Europe, the Soviets were tidying up after dismantling the Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s doomed effort to win for itself a measure of freedom and dignity. In South Africa, apartheid was becoming official state policy. In Northern Ireland, a 300-year-old religious war was being renewed. And there even was a four-day war between El Salvador and Honduras—over a soccer game!
So there was scant time for ordinary people to transcend borders and countries, and nowhere was this more true than in China, then suffering the agonies of the Cultural Revolution, a Mao-driven political cleansing that took an estimated 8 million lives and destroyed perhaps 100 million others. This was one of the twentieth century’s great human tragedies, and it resonates today in ways directly relevant to the making of First Man. Few regimes are more sensitive to political content in entertainment than Beijing’s, and few countries are more critical to the financial success of a major motion picture: China is the world’s second-largest buyer of movies tickets, behind only the United States. It’s easy to imagine Chinese censors objecting to a movie casting Old Glory in a starring role, and even easier to envision Chazelle and Gosling avoiding the issue by ditching the flag in the first place, and now making up more high-minded motives. To hell with truth, they’re telling us, and to hell with history.
No: to hell with First Man.