‘First Man’ doesn’t focus on the American flag but it’s still about courage, patriotism

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (c) The movie has been criticized for not including the planting of the American flag on the lunar landing, which Gosling, the film’s director and Armstrong’s two sons defend.
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in “First Man.” (c) The movie has been criticized for not including the planting of the American flag on the lunar landing, which Gosling, the film’s director and Armstrong’s two sons defend. Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictur

“First Man” had not even hit theaters before the president crushed the film depicting Neil Armstrong’s mission to land on the moon.

President Trump, in an interview with The Daily Caller, said he would not watch the new Ryan Gosling film because it does not include the portion of the 1968 lunar landing where the astronauts plant the American flag on the lunar surface.

“Well, I think that that conversation is for the most part happening among people who have not seen the film,” Gosling said in an interview with the Star-Telegram on Wednesday. “It is featured in the film on the moon.”

Gosling is not spinning this, but what the film does not do is focus on the most well known part of the lunar landing, accomplished on July 20, 1969: One of the history’s most famous photographs.

But we may as well add “First Man,” which opens Friday, to the growing list of entertainment options, right next to the NFL, that are perceived as unpatriotic in the never-ending, empty but loud debate where reason is unwelcome and no one wins.

Trump and the flag

“We did think about the use of the flag throughout the movie,” director Damien Chazelle said. “The movie isn’t just about the moon walk but the 10 years that led up to it. We were always trying to find the version of history that you have not seen before. That famous image? OK, everyone has seen that. Let’s show them the flag standing right after that moment beautifully and poetically on that surface. That felt more powerful to me.”

And what would Armstrong think of this portion of the film?

“The first thing (Neil Armstrong) would say is that, ‘That’s (fellow astronaut) Buzz Aldrin in the photo,’ ” said Armstrong’s son, Eric. “Dad had the camera. He was a stickler for accuracy. If you watch the movie, this is one of the most patriotic films I’ve ever seen.

“The flag was a rather late addition to the program. It was not planned in the mission plan until the last couple of months. They had to run out to Sears to find a flag.”

Said Armstrong’s second son, Mark: “They had to put a wire in it so it would look like it was flying.”

From ‘The Right Stuff’ to ‘First Man’

“First Man” picks up where the 1983 movie “The Right Stuff” ends, continuing the story of NASA, the space race and, specifically, Armstrong’s trip to the moon

“Stuff,” which is over three hours, is awash in red, white and blue patriotism and the importance of America’s Cold War with the U.S.S.R.; the type of patriotism displayed in “First Man” is more subtle, and unmistakable: It’s the sacrifices made by Armstrong, and specifically his marriage and family. That and all of those families who worked for NASA in Houston to see this project be a success.

When “The Right Stuff” was released audiences were not used to seeing their heroes portrayed as flawed humans; in 2018 we are conditioned to seeing our mythic figures displayed with warts, flawed marriages, or shortcomings, despite their success.

“Maybe we did need a certain distance from that period,” Chazelle said.

Armstrong’s marriage included the death of the couple’s only daughter when she was three. She died on the couple’s wedding anniversary; the two never celebrated the occasion ever again.

Armstrong’s sons said their dad never talked about any of it. After her death, depicted in the film, he became a workaholic; NASA benefited from Armstrong’s zeal while the family took a hit.

“That was dad’s way to handle grief,” Mark Armstrong said. “Mom didn’t have the option available to throw herself into work. She felt those losses very deeply. I think she probably wishes to have had him home more. We didn’t grow up thinking, ‘Why is dad gone so much?’’ It’s just the way it was.”

Throughout all of the achievement, the repression, pain, resentment and fear are unmistakable throughout “First Man.”

“I had no idea how dangerous this all was; how much sacrifice was involved,” Gosling said. “The fact that he could move forward from the losses he had experienced and keep the focus on this impossible task.”

More often that that, those are real characteristics of patriotism more than any color pattern on a piece of fabric.

“We wanted to teach about the sacrifices people made,” Chazelle said. “We thought that was a more meaningful way to pay tribute to these real heroes underneath the iconic history that we all grew up with.”

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