A giant leap for mankind or purely an American achievement? Nobody much cared at the time, but half a century later the moon landings have unexpectedly become a political litmus test. Blame the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling – in particular, the moment when (spoiler alert), after a lifetime’s training and tragedy, Armstrong finally sets foot on the moon. We see him descending the lunar lander, we see the astronaut roaming the lunar surface, we see him turn to look back at Earth, but what we don’t see is the precise moment when Armstrong planted the US flag. Many have decided, even without having seen the movie, that this is one small step too far.
“This is total lunacy,” tweeted the Republican senator Marco Rubio. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
The actor James Woods weighed in: “Omitting the seminal moment in the midst of mankind’s greatest achievement seems a purposeful denigration of the 400,000 Americans who accomplished it.” The conservative columnist Bill Kristol called it a “foolish and pernicious falsification of history”. Even Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s Apollo 11 crewmate, tweeted two pictures of himself standing on the moon next to the stars and stripes, annotated with hashtags including #proudtobeanAmerican, #freedom, #honor and #onenation.
Inevitably, the news was relayed to Donald Trump, whose response raised the affair to full-on culture-war level. “It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America; I think it’s a terrible thing,” Trump told the Daily Caller, a conservative news site. “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.” Wait till he finds out Ryan Gosling is Canadian.
Chazelle’s omission of the flag-planting was deliberate, but not politically motivated, the director said in response. “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 … This film is about one of the most extraordinary accomplishments not only in American history, but in human history.”
Chazelle was supported by Armstrong’s sons and James R Hansen, author of the nonfiction book First Man, from which the movie was adapted. In a joint statement, they said: “We do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite.”
In the same week that Nike’s sponsorship of NFL knee-taker-in-chief Colin Kaepernick compelled some Americans to set fire to their trainers, Chazelle’s movie is another illustration of how polarised US life has become, especially when it comes to the flag. Depending on which end of the political scale you are, First Man is either being wilfully interpreted as political when its stated agenda is the opposite, or it is another case of liberal Hollywood trolling conservatives, rewriting history and generally making America less great.
If Chazelle had intended to go full liberal, he would surely have called the movie First Person, but the director may have had other reasons for ditching the flag-planting scene. With awards season approaching, First Man was always going to be an Oscar shot, especially given Chazelle’s near miss in 2017, when the best picture award was mistakenly handed to La La Land, rather than Moonlight.
In the current climate, overtly patriotic movies do not tend to go down well with the Academy, whereas tacitly anti-Trump films do – such as Steven Spielberg’s The Post last year. Its account of the Pentagon Papers affair invited comparisons between Richard Nixon’s White House and Trump’s assault on press freedom and earned it a clutch of nominations. Even last year’s best picture winner, The Shape of Water, conspicuously cast white government males as the villains and brought the marginalised figures of US society to the centre: women, gay people, disabled people, people of colour, immigrants (albeit of the aquatic fish-man variety) – groups Trump has vilified, in other words.
A similar diversification has been going on with space movies. Historically, space has been overwhelmingly white, male and American, in real life and in film, as seen in “serious” space films like The Right Stuff, Apollo 13 and Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys. Incidentally, Eastwood was first in line to make First Man. He acquired the rights to the book in 2003, before its publication. Hansen even engineered a meeting between Eastwood and a reluctant Armstrong. According to Hansen, they did not hit it off: “Neil didn’t like the violence in Clint’s movies and Clint apparently appreciated space cowboys more than he did real engineer-astronauts.” As something of a corrective, Hidden Figures (2017) portrayed the real-life African American women whose mathematical calculations helped put Nasa in space in the early 60s, even as they contended with discrimination in pre-civil-rights Virginia.
Mindful of its global audience, Hollywood has been steadily de-Americanising space. For example, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, the big Oscar-winner in 2013, focused on white American astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, but also incorporated the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong-1 space station (and was made primarily by Mexican and British film-makers). Ridley Scott’s The Martian, set in 2035, also envisaged a spacescape in which the Chinese came to the aid of Nasa, loaning them a rocket to rescue stranded Matt Damon. Nothing says “the future” in a sci-fi movie like a diverse, multicultural crew.
When it comes to real-world politics, the US has always sent out a mixed message. Fifty-six years ago, in his famous Rice University speech that sought to persuade Americans to go to the moon, John F Kennedy told the US: “The eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace.”
That flag was always envisaged as being the stars and stripes – and it has always been a bit of both: part “flag of conquest”, part “banner of freedom and peace”. As well as professing lofty sentiments about conquering space for all mankind, in the same speech Kennedy characterised the Apollo missions as “part of a great national effort of the United States of America”. That effort was to beat the Soviet Union at all costs. After all, it had already produced the “first man” of space exploration: Yuri Gagarin.
Politically, the US’s space programme has been one of the few areas of continual bipartisan agreement and cooperation, although the militarisation of space has never been far from its leaders’ minds. Jimmy Carter’s 1978 space policy was full of sentiment about maintaining the freedom of space “for the security and welfare of mankind”, but it also decreed the US would “pursue activities in space in support of its right of self-defence”. Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated Strategic Defense Initiative – “Star Wars” – was proof to many that he had been watching too many movies. Now we have its 21st-century equivalent in Trump’s much-derided “Space Force” proposal.
Viewed through the Trump prism, the 1969 moon landings are surely the ultimate “make America great again” touchstone: a moment of incontestable US supremacy that occurred within many of his voters’ lifetimes. The fact that the moon landings still represent the pinnacle of human, and American, accomplishment in space nearly 50 years later fits into the Trumpian narrative. He recognises that if anyone can Maga, it is Nasa.
While the Trump administration has burned bridges or slashed funds at most government departments, it has increased Nasa’s funding (although its budget is still a fraction of what it was in the Apollo days). As part of his Space Policy Directive unveiled last December, Trump has pledged to return astronauts to the moon: “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints – we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday to many worlds beyond.” Space exploration is one of the few areas where Democrats and Republicans are broadly in agreement.
Has the First Man furore ruined that? Nobody could come out of the movie with the impression that any country other than the US won the race to the moon. The movie is largely faithful to events and a great many US flags are depicted – on the sleeves of the astronauts’ suits, for example, and on the moon’s surface in the film’s closing moments. Furthermore, the film as a whole is saturated in masculine, American ingenuity, courage and sentimentality. But it also reminds us that public support for the moon landings was far from unanimous at the time. Even in 1969, only 53% of Americans believed the feat was worth the cost. There is a brief montage of opposition to the strains of a cover of Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon: “I can’t pay no doctor bills / But whitey’s on the moon / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / While whitey’s on the moon.”
When it comes down to it, perhaps this litmus test is about whether we see the US flag more as Kennedy’s “banner of freedom and peace” or a “flag of conquest”, hostile or otherwise. Chazelle has clearly chosen the former. First Man consciously makes its key visual symbol the view of the Earth from the moon, not the planting of the flag. On a more practical level, Armstrong did not plant the flag by himself; Aldrin helped him. In the photos of the moon landings we have all seen a million times, it is Aldrin who is standing next to the flag, not Armstrong. “We’re not doing the Buzz Aldrin story, or the Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong story,” Chazelle explained to Variety. “We’re doing Neil Armstrong subjective, emotional, thinking about his past on the moon in a sort of surreal, emotional way. That was our priority.”
What would Armstrong have said about all this? Probably nothing. His brand of heroism is invariably appended with the word “reluctant”. Armstrong was unimpeachably a patriot who loved and served his country, but he was also tight-lipped. He barely made any public statements about his experiences on the moon – or anything else. He did, however, make one concise, very famous proclamation about it being a giant leap for mankind. Perhaps, in that transcendent moment, he wanted us to be more than a planet of warring tribes, nation states or political factions. And we are, right?
First Man is released in the UK on 12 October