Neil Armstrong biopic not unpatriotic, say sons as Aldrin fuels controversy

First Man does not show the astronauts planting US flag, sparking anger on the right – but second man’s views are unclear

Neil Armstrong’s sons do not think First Man, a Ryan Gosling-starring biopic about their father, is anti-American. Some American conservatives do. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, may agree with them. Or he may not.

That was the takeaway from a week of social media-stoked controversy over the movie, which opened the Venice film festival to positive reviews.

First Man reunites the men behind the Oscar-winning La La Land: the director Damien Chazelle, who was born in the US to a French father and a Canadian mother, and Gosling, who is fully Canadian.

The movie does not show the moment on 21 July 1969 when the two American astronauts who travelled on Apollo 11 planted a US flag on the lunar surface. Critics reported that the stars and stripes is nonetheless visible in the moon-set scenes.

The Daily Telegraph reported that Gosling said the moon landing “transcended countries and borders” and was “widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it”.

He also said he did not think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero” and added: “From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”

“I’m Canadian,” Gosling added, “so [I] might have cognitive bias.”

In an echo of controversies over American films that appropriate historic achievements by other countries – think U-571 – US conservatives were duly outraged. On TV, the Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt linked the film to protests by NFL players and recent remarks by New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo.

“They don’t think America is great,” she said. “They want to kneel for the flag, for the anthem … ‘It was never great’ … They’re scared to use the American flag. It’s Hollywood.”

Unusually for an avid viewer and frequent regurgitator of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump did not tweet on the matter. But Marco Rubio did.

“This is total lunacy,” the Florida senator wrote, employing a pointed pun. “And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”

Chazelle responded, saying: “The flag being physically planted into the surface is one of several moments of the Apollo 11 [mission] that I chose not to focus upon.

“To address the question of whether this was a political statement, the answer is no. 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.”

Members of Armstrong’s family moved to calm things down. In a statement also credited to the biographer James R Hansen, Rick and Mark Armstrong said: “This story is human and it is universal. Of course, it celebrates an America achievement. It also celebrates an achievement ‘for all mankind’, as it says on the plaque Neil and Buzz left on the moon.”

Mark Armstrong also praised the British actor Claire Foy for her performance as his mother, Janet Armstrong.

She “only passed away recently”, he told the Mail on Sunday, “so to see her up there, alive and so real … it was incredible.” Foy, he said, captured his mother’s “essence. She communicates so many feelings without words. I got very emotional.”

But no social media fire can be left untended, lest it burn itself out. On Sunday night, Aldrin, 88 – who is played in the movie by an American, Corey Stoll – posted a string of hashtags on Twitter: “#proudtobeanAmerican, #freedom, #honor, #onenation, #Apollo11, #July1969, #roadtoApollo50”.

Inevitably, in certain circles his tweet was seized as evidence of disapproval.


Martin Pengelly

The GuardianTramp

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