“It’s almost like they’re embarrassed at the achievement coming from America,” President Donald Trump said. “I think it’s a terrible thing.”
“This is total lunacy,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
“History sure can be inconvenient when patriotism makes you queasy,” wrote a critic at the National Review.
A tweet from Buzz Aldrin, who joined Armstrong on the Apollo mission to the moon, that included the hashtags “#proudtobeanAmerican #freedom #honor #onenation” further fanned the flames. (A producer on the film later told me that Aldrin was consulted frequently during filming, and liked the completed movie.)
The controversy was quite short-lived, and may even have boosted interest in the film. It also could have been completely avoided if the critics had actually, you know, seen it.
First Man is a 141-minute commercial for a uniquely American brand of determination and achievement. It provides a tour of increasingly advanced engineering: We join Armstrong in nerve-wracking, claustrophobic rides aboard an X-15 plane, a Gemini capsule, a lunar-landing simulator, and then, finally, the Apollo spacecraft. It depicts years of extensive training: We see astronauts braving the physical rigors of spaceflight firsthand, their bodies bruised, bloodied, singed, and burned. And it shows the intense resolve to continue in the face of loss: We grieve with Armstrong at the funerals of astronauts whose missions ended in tragedy.
Such moments clearly illustrate the stakes of what the United States was trying to do and the sacrifices it had to endure, which makes its ultimate success that much more triumphant.
If critics want explicitly American symbols, there are plenty. The flag appears on space suits and in archival news footage of elated crowds, and on the surface of the moon as the Apollo spacecraft departs after a successful mission. A creatively shot scene takes the viewer up a tall elevator on the launchpad, revealing each letter emblazoned on the side of a rocket as it goes: U-N-I-T-E-D-S-T-A-T-E-S. John F. Kennedy makes an appearance on a television screen. The camera lingers on the quiet moments in which Armstrong gingerly climbs down the ladder of the lunar module, presses his boot into the soil, and tells mission control about his one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind, with such similar tone and inflection as the real Armstrong did that the sound of the transmission gives you chills.
First Man does take a subtler approach compared to other films about significant achievements in the American space program, like in Apollo 13, the harrowing tale of an in-flight malfunction and the effort to return astronauts safely to Earth. The flight controllers, the heroic protagonists of that film, are minor supporting characters in First Man. But that’s the point. First Man is based on a biography of Armstrong, and the story of the moon landing is told in the confines of his life—the death of his young daughter Karen eight years before the moon landing, the trauma of losing his friends, and the constant current of fear that he may not come home to his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and their two sons. Viewers spend more time in Armstrong’s kitchen than they do in the spacecraft that takes him to the moon.