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The First Man controversy is grounded in partisanship, not patriotism

It’s time for bad-faith hysteria about unseen movies to stop.

Ryan Gosling stars in First Man, which was catapulted into right-wing Twitter controversy last week.
Ryan Gosling in First Man.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah came out in 2014, I was the chief film critic at Christianity Today. I liked the movie, and I gave it a positive review. Almost instantly, I was informed by a flood of emails and comments from readers that my opinion was wrong.

What was strange was that the emails were coming from people who couldn’t possibly have seen Noah, since it hadn’t hit theaters yet; I had seen it at a pre-release screening for critics. Almost everyone had a similar complaint: The movie “didn’t even mention God.”

I was mystified. People are always talking about God in Noah. They don’t use the name “God”; they talk about “the Creator,” a reasonable thing to do for people who are meant to be, at most, about 10 generations removed from the actual act of creation. But calling God by various other names isn’t considered strange or aberrant to conservative Christians — in fact, Christian bookstores have long sold posters celebrating God’s many monikers.

Plus, I’d seen the movie. I knew the claim that the movie “didn’t even mention God” wasn’t true. There had to be a patient zero somewhere.

Russell Crowe in Noah
Russell Crowe played the titular character in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 film Noah.

It turned out that, in his review of the film, the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy made a passing comment about the specific word “God” not actually being used, and that detail had been picked up and spotlit by Breitbart. On the same day the Breitbart story ran, Glenn Beck — whose star was much brighter in 2014 than it is now — also picked up on the story, citing McCarthy’s review alongside a common complaint that the film’s interpretation of Noah was merely worried about “environmental issues.” Noah, to these observers, was just another example of liberal, godless Hollywood’s attempts to destroy religion and goodness. A fire was lit.

If any mention or notion of God truly had been eradicated in Noah, or if the film’s protagonist was just worried about the environment (rather than mankind’s sinful destruction of all life, including human beings), this particular controversy may have had some legs.

But by the time I saw the film and wrote my review, the damage was already done. Nothing I could write would convince certain people — who, again, hadn’t yet seen the film — that Noah did, in fact, contain plenty of references to God (though some of my colleagues tried). And because they already believed something untrue about it, they declared they would never go see it, which means they would never be challenged in their belief.

That was the first time I’d ever seen an echo chamber constructed so rapidly and distressingly, right before my eyes. Noah — a movie too weird and challenging to have ever really become a box-office hit, but that’s beside the point — had been crudely fashioned into a blunt instrument for culture warriors. (Beck said on his program that he “hates to give Hollywood a dime.”) It didn’t matter one bit that the film clearly believes God is real, that humans are created, and that man’s wickedness is bad; whatever Noah’s faults as a piece of filmmaking, it never deserved to be co-opted that way.

When the First Man controversy broke over Labor Day weekend, I thought a lot about Noah.

The controversy around First Man is sharply undermined by the film itself — but that won’t matter to those who’ve bought into the outrage

I’ve seen First Man now, on an IMAX screen at the Toronto International Film Festival, two weeks after it debuted at the Venice Film Festival. It’s a stunning portrait of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, as he both trains alongside his fellow Project Gemini astronauts and grapples with his more private grief over the death of his daughter.

Following the film’s Venice premiere, some comments by its star, Ryan Gosling (who plays Armstrong), set off a firestorm of controversy over whether the film is anti-American, unpatriotic, and “total lunacy” for not explicitly showing the iconic, familiar moment in which an American flag is physically planted on the surface of the moon.

When asked about why that moment isn’t depicted in the film, Gosling specifically said that it doesn’t appear because First Man chooses to cast the moon landing both as an American achievement and a “human achievement.” The actor also noted that Armstrong (as revealed in the authorized biography on which the movie is based) didn’t see himself as “an American hero,” and so the filmmakers opted to focus on “the way Neil viewed himself.”

Gosling’s comments ultimately became the basis for a series of much broader claims, such as the idea that the film “omits” the American flag entirely, or (in the weirdest rumor I heard through the grapevine) that it’s replaced with Chinese flags.

No matter that First Man clearly shows the flag on the moon — twice, in fact — planted firmly next to the lunar landing module. Nor that there are flags everywhere in the film: on the shuttles, on the arms of the astronauts’ uniforms, in the celebratory flower basket left in Armstrong’s quarantine room when he returns to Earth. In one scene, Armstrong’s son runs a flag up to the awning of their house, and we watch it flap proudly in the breeze for a moment. I’d have almost thought the filmmakers added the scene to thumb their noses at the unfounded outrage if I didn’t know the film was finished before said outrage took hold.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
A scene from First Man, one of many in which the American flag is proudly displayed.
Universal Pictures/AP

As happened with Noah, I’ve gotten emails and seen tweets about First Man since writing about the controversy. As far as I know, none of them have come from people who’ve seen the film.

Some people are angered by the “omission” of the flag-planting scene. Others are livid because, they insist, the flag “never” appears in the film. Still others have argued that First Man not only minimizes the flag, but in doing so illustrates how Hollywood “censors” its movies to appeal to the Chinese market, as if to suggest that Chinese audiences would be okay watching a movie that clearly showed Americans were the first to land on the moon, but draw the line at being overtly reminded that an American planted a flag onto the moon. (The only thing that argument reveals is that the person making it has not only not seen First Man, but also doesn’t understand how censorship, filmmaking, or the Chinese market works in Hollywood right now.)

It’s perfectly acceptable to criticize movies. But people and their art deserve basic respect.

It’s true that First Man doesn’t specifically contain a scene in which the Apollo 11 astronauts pull out a flag and stick it into the surface of the moon. It’s also true that you won’t hear the word “God” uttered in Noah. Instead, in Noah, we hear about “the Creator,” and in First Man we’re given a glimpse into Armstrong’s mental state, which is less interested in the heroic act and more interested in his own personal need to cope with the death of his daughter.

As I watched First Man’s story unfold and thought about how out of control the controversy around it had become — with politicians like Marco Rubio and Donald Trump, right-wing opportunists like Dinesh D’Souza and Mike Cernovich, and astronaut Buzz Aldrin himself making statements about it — I couldn’t help but recall my experience with Noah.

The controversy around the inclusion of God’s name in Noah wasn’t really about people’s feelings about God. It was about reinforcing and confirming existing biases against liberal Hollywood, and refusing to consider any information that would complicate or challenge that bias. In the same way, the idea that First Man is “unpatriotic” or “anti-American” isn’t about the film itself; it’s about rallying around already-established biases and refusing to believe that initial reports could be misleading or flat-out wrong.

These sorts of controversies are typically seized upon by people who profit greatly from fueling the fears of their audience. They’re cynical moves by opportunists who benefit from the attention they bring. But they’re not about standing up for principles or looking for the truth.

It’s not that I can’t imagine someone finding a way to convincingly argue that seeing the flag being planted on the moon surface would have improved First Man in some way, or that the film’s focus on Neil Armstrong’s perspective narrows its story too much. I would disagree with that criticism, but it’s the sort of disagreement that critics engage in all the time.

It’s also a very different sort of disagreement than the one driving the controversy around First Man. What’s important to understand here is that nobody gets to demand that a filmmaker who aims to make a very intimate biographical movie about a man grappling with the burden of grief insert a scene we’ve all seen before. We can criticize the movie after we’ve seen it, based on what we think might have made it better on its own terms. I fully support that. It’s my job, and it’s yours, too, if you care about art.

But judging it to be bad because someone said it doesn’t look like you think it should, or because it doesn’t contain the precise words that will make you like it, is not just disrespectful. It also runs against the grain of what it means to be human and to connect with others, and with the things they make, in good faith and with love.

Art, a friend of mine is fond of saying, does not owe you anything. You might want a movie to contain a specific scene, or to end with your preferred conclusion. But that isn’t what art does. Art exists to challenge us, to make us see the world in a new way. As the Neil Armstrong of First Man might put it, good art often takes us out of our everyday, self-centered cluelessness, our facile assumptions about the world and about other people, and changes our perspective.

If we make up our mind about a work of art before we even see it, or see it but then fail to consider its objectives in criticizing it, then we’re the problem. And a movie like First Man — which, whatever its faults as a piece of filmmaking, thinks one’s country is worth protecting, one’s family deserves to be loved, one’s flag deserves a place of honor at home and in space, and one’s fellow man deserves respect — never deserved to be co-opted that way.

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