The Absurdity of the First Man Flag Controversy

The film is a 141-minute commercial for a uniquely American brand of determination and achievement.

In a photo from 1969, Buzz Aldrin stands next to an American flag on the moon.
Neil A. Armstrong / NASA / Getty

This article contains spoilers for First Man; yes, we all know how it ends, but there’s more to it than that.

First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic out in theaters on Friday, is many things: a breathtaking cinematic production that pays as much attention to the accurate replication of spacecraft as it does to the stunning visual rendering of the lunar surface. A dramatic retelling of a space race between two very different nations, and the maddening moments when the Soviets outmaneuvered the Americans. An intimate portrait of the soft-spoken pilot whom NASA chose for the pivotal achievement in the saga, and his difficult journey to get there.

What First Man is not, however, is an unpatriotic film.

This was the line of criticism in late August, long before the film came out. After the movie debuted at the Venice Film Festival, reports began to trickle out that First Man did not feature an iconic moment of the moon landing: the planting of the American flag in lunar soil. The omission prompted an angry response from conservative leaders and writers who saw the decision as bordering on treasonous. Some comments from Ryan Gosling, the actor who portrays Armstrong—that the moon landing “was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement,” that Gosling didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero”—only made it worse.

“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.

It is for this reason that the narrative crest of the film is not the planting of the American flag, or the first step, or a gleeful Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) using the moon’s low gravity to hop across the surface. The emotional peak comes when Armstrong wanders off on his own and stands at the edge of a crater. He opens a curled-up glove to reveal his daughter’s bead bracelet, and drops it into the darkness of the cavern. For First Man, this is the end of the journey. (While the real Armstrong made this walk, the astronaut refused to tell his biographer how he spent the minutes; according to First Man producers, his family was pleased with this interpretation.)

But you don’t have to see First Man to recognize that the furor over the film’s perceived lack of patriotism was never about the film itself. It is a sign of the times; the film is a natural target for members of the right who believe that national symbols are under attack by the left. For some conservatives, a Hollywood filmmaker’s decision not to include the planting of the flag is no different from a football player’s refusal to stand during the national anthem or a city council’s vote to remove a Confederate statue or rename a street or even a mountain peak.

It’s possible to walk out of the movie theater with complicated feelings about some aspects of the American space program, and about whether space exploration is worth it as a national, taxpayer-funded effort when so many problems back on Earth require political will and attention. In one scene, a black performer sings Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”: “I can’t pay no doctor bill / but Whitey’s on the moon / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still / while Whitey’s on the moon.” In another, Robert Gilruth (Ciarán Hinds), the director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, now the Johnson Space Center, growls at Armstrong over a failed test flight that could have killed him. “At what cost?” Gilruth asks him. “Don’t you think it’s a little late for that question?” Armstrong replies coolly.

It is easy to look back and wonder whether the sacrifices justified the success, and to look at renewed American efforts to return to the moon and wonder whether those are worth it, too. This is, of course, a different question from that of the film’s patriotism. In terms of portraying an American triumph and the indefatigable astronauts and engineers who made it happen, First Man is more than adequate.