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The year’s silliest movie controversy is about the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man

Yes, the American flag is in the movie.

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
The American flag appears both in scenes on the moon and on the astronauts’ uniforms in First Man, despite reports and rumors from those who had not seen the film.
Universal Pictures via AP
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.

Every Hollywood awards season has its teapot tempests, and this year’s first — and, hopefully, its silliest — was already boiling over by the end of August, when the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Directed by La La Land’s Damien Chazelle, First Man is mostly the story of the moon landing. According to those who’ve seen the film — currently a small number of people who attended its screenings at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals — American flags are visible in various scenes and on the astronauts’ uniforms, but there’s no moonshot scene that specifically reenacts the iconic footage of the American flag being planted on the moon.

This is where the controversy begins. Anger over this supposed “omission” has launched a frenzy of people performing outrage over the film’s supposed lack of patriotism, spurred by irresponsible statements from famous figures with political platforms. As a result, the film — which won’t even arrive in theaters until mid-October — has become the latest grenade to be lobbed into the culture wars alongside burning Nikes, Twitter bias, and practically anything else that can be seized upon for political and personal branding and gain.

First Man is supposed to be about Neil Armstrong’s personal journey — but its lack of a moonshot scene has led some to label it unpatriotic

On August 30, Business Insider posted quotes from the press conference following First Man’s premiere in Venice. Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong in the film, said at the press conference that the scene doesn’t appear because First Man chooses to cast the landing as a “human achievement,” not just an American achievement.

“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,” Gosling said. The actor noted that he believed Armstrong didn’t see himself as an “American hero” and that the filmmakers had opted to focus on “the way Neil viewed himself.”

Responding to a Business Insider tweet containing a link to the piece, Sen. Marco Rubio called the choice not to include a scene that specifically depicted Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon “total lunacy”:

(It’s not clear if Rubio’s “lunacy” pun was intentional.)

Rubio’s statement was swiftly echoed by right-wing accounts on Twitter, with some proclaiming their dissatisfaction using the hashtag #BoycottFirstMan. Some protesters referred to the movie as a “parody of America-hating Hollywood,” “complete disrespect to America,” and “how history is erased and rewritten in line with progressive anti-Americanism.” False information flew.

In an interview with the LA Times, Chazelle expressed surprise over the controversy, explaining that because the flag-planting was “a very famous moment,” he chose to “focus on the unfamous stuff” as a throughput to Armstrong’s state of mind.

“So we don’t go into the phone call with Nixon, we don’t go into the scientific experiments, we don’t go into reentry, et cetera,” he continued. Chazelle also noted that the movie does contain several shots of the flag “standing proudly by the LEM” (lunar excursion model) as it depicts Armstrong embarking on his solo walk to the Little West crater.

Armstrong’s sons Rick and Mark, along with James R. Hansen (who wrote the book on which First Man is based), echoed Chazelle’s remarks in a joint statement supporting the film. “We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest,” they said. “Quite the opposite. But don’t take our word for it. We’d encourage everyone to go see this remarkable film and see for themselves.”

First Man’s so-called lack of “respect” for the American flag is easy, familiar fuel for the outrage machine

Over Labor Day weekend, as right-wingers who hadn’t seen First Man continued to post about their outrage on Twitter, Buzz Aldrin, who flew the mission to the moon with Armstrong, posted a tweet that some have interpreted as a critique of the film. It featured an image of himself, Armstrong, and the flag on the moon, alongside a number of hashtags, including “#proudtobeanAmerican”:

Then, when asked about the controversy during an interview with the conservative news outlet The Daily Caller, President Donald Trump announced that he won’t be seeing the film, calling it “unfortunate.”

“It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America, I think it’s a terrible thing,” Trump said, explaining that “when you think of Neil Armstrong and when you think of the landing on the moon, you think about the American flag. For that reason, I wouldn’t even want to watch the movie.”

Meanwhile, critics who had seen the film appeared confounded, considering what they saw as the film’s strong pro-American bent and the inclusion of a number of shots containing American flags. The New York Times’s chief film critic, A.O. Scott, posted on Twitter about it, saying that “the accusation that the movie suppresses the flag is quite simply a lie”:

While the First Man controversy will, with any luck, blow over once more people are able to watch the film and speak about it knowledgeably, it’s an instructive example of how easy it is for art to get caught up in America’s never-ending outrage cycle, or to become a political pawn.

When prominent people with a broad platform, such as a sitting US senator, are willing to jump to conclusions based on a tweet rather than wait to get the facts straight, their actions come across as either irresponsibly rash or as cynical attempts to create a manufactured controversy for political gain. In the case of First Man, it’s easy to see how criticizing its use of the American flag plays on people’s proclivity for believing the worst, particularly about “Hollywood liberal elites.” And that kind of interference could not only end up spreading falsehoods, but also harm a film that might ultimately bolster one’s own cause.

First Man’s next stop is the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on October 12.