Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as the titular character, Neil Armstrong, FIRST MAN offers a historically accurate portrait of the first man who walked on the moon. Most of the cinematography is done using a hand held camera, up close and personal to the characters, highlighting the theme of the movie: a personal, intimate look at some of the men and women involved the first moon landing. While 1960s Cold War era politics serves as a setting and backdrop of the film, those themes are always background themes that take backseat to the more intimate, personal, and emotional journeys of the characters.
The movie has struggled in the box office, but it is not because of the quality of the film or the story choices made — it is an unfortunate casualty of the too-politicized culture wars of today. In fact, using that metaphor, I would call First Man a civilian casualty, for the film itself makes no overtures one way or another in these culture wars. It is a neutral party that has been caught in the cross hairs through no fault of its own. More on this shortly.
FIRST MAN is clean and family friendly, although intense at moments
There is only one non-”family friendly” moment in the entire film, and it is a single use of the f-word. In fact, I don’t remember any other swearing in the film (though it could have been there, I just don’t recall). My suspicion is that the f-word was included for no other reason than to earn the film a more lucrative PG-13 rating. (It is unfortunate that so many moviegoers see PG-13 films as more “serious” and more worth our time and attention. In fact, I’ve at times thought that PG films must cater towards younger audiences and would be less interesting to me as an adult. Time to repent of that.)
That aside, the film is clean and family friendly. It has dramatic moments that would be intense for younger audiences. But any audience that enjoyed the movie APOLLO 13 would enjoy this film as well. FIRST MAN is, perhaps, an even more family friendly film than that one, since APOLLO 13 was riddled with profanity in a way that FIRST MAN is not. There are many scenes, thought, that deal with death and similarly heavy emotional themes of grief.
FIRST MAN is emotional, sincere, and accurate
As an intimate portrait of Neil Armstrong, the movie gets up close and personal into how Armstrong deals with emotion. In ways that are apparently true to the historical person of Armstrong, Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who is filled with emotion, but who is intensely private about it. He does not want to express his feelings in the presence of others, not even his own wife — a point of conflict at times in the film. Even when asked by a reporter about how he felt being chosen for the mission, his only response was, “I was pleased.” He would not offer any more than that to any public audience, and hardly more than that to a private one.
While some of Armstrong’s colleagues have claimed that the movie was not true to the character of Armstrong, it seems that their critiques are based less on the movie itself, and more on Gosling’s comments about the movie. Those closest to Armstrong have said that the movie is very accurate in its portrayal not only of Armstrong, but also his wife. His two sons have said that the film was pitch perfect in portraying both their father and their mother. On all other historical details, the movie is almost exactly accurate, oftentimes taking dialogue straight from historical records. For other sources on this, see here, here, and here.
There is, in fact, the only aspect of the film wholly invented by the writers: when Armstrong leaves his daughter’s bracelet on the moon. However, we don’t know that it didn’t happen, Armstrong’s family had no objections to it. Further, we know that Armstrong did, in fact, name the crater he stood by after his daughter, and paused there for a time remembering her. All the writers added was him leaving a bracelet there. Armstrong never admitted — but also never denied — doing something like that. We know that other astronauts did similar things. I’ll forgive the writers for adding that detail. It works.
One particularly interesting cinematic choice added to the realism, during the film’s depiction of Armstrong’s first trip into space on the Gemini 8 mission. The purpose of the launch was to test whether it was possible to find another ship in orbit and dock with it. The entire mission is shown from within the cockpit, approximating Armstrong’s own point of view. Where I expected exterior shots of the rocket launching, stages separating, or even the docking in full CGI, we didn’t get any of that. All we see of those moments is what Armstrong himself could see from his tiny cockpit window.
The choice to show it entirely from within the cockpit highlighted how claustrophobic those launches really were. As audiences, we are used to seeing everything that’s happening in full widescreen format. But as an astronaut, you are strapped into a tiny cockpit on top of a tower of explosives. And you can’t see what’s happening beneath you. You can barely see anything at all through the very tiny windows. And everything is shaking like crazy. This was highlighted even more when things started to go wrong. Even then, audiences weren’t given a privileged view of what was happening — all you know is that things are starting to spin and they can’t figure out why. It showed just how precarious and dangerous the entire endeavor was.
There isn’t the slightest hint of anti-American globalism in the film, contrary to reports
At the film’s screening, Ryan Gosling made an aside about how the first trip to the moon was a “human achievement,” rather than a uniquely American accomplishment, and that this was why the film didn’t depict Armstrong and Aldrin planting an American flag. “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” he said. This comment erupted into a cauldron of controversy that currently threatens to tank the film, as conservative moviegoers everywhere are committed to boycotting it. Millions of Americans believe that the flag planting was intentionally left out as a (Kaepernick-style) slight against America, in order to advance an anti-American globalist agenda.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The flag is everywhere in the film. The flag is even shown on the moon. The Cold War themes are in the movie. Russia is still a national enemy. The characters are loyal citizens. At one point at the very end, they even show a French woman talking about how she always knew America would be the ones to land on the moon. The flag planting scene itself was left out because:
- The original flag planting wasn’t particularly dramatic to begin with. The flag was hard to keep upright, and hard to unfurl. Making the moment accurate would have made it fumbling and anti-climatic.
- Because it distracted from the real climax of the film, which was Neil Armstrong’s personal victory over grief over the death of his 2 year old daughter. The emotional climax of the film was when he left behind a bracelet owned by his daughter.
As the director himself said, “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.”
In short, the film wasn’t a docudrama of the cold war space race. It was a dramatic retelling of Neil Armstrong’s personal emotional journey with grief. And so the directors and the writers focused the climax of the film on that personal journey. And it worked. The flag planting would have interfered with that focus. It would have dueled with the real climax for the emotional attention of the audience. Politics was possibly the furthest thing from their minds when making these editorial decisions. Telling Armstrong’s story was their priority.
We should note here that Buzz Aldrin originally tweeted what seemed to be a criticism of the film. But then went and saw the film, and has apparently approved of it. This is supremely ironic, since the movie (accurately) portrays Buzz Aldrin as a man who speaks before he thinks, in contrast with Armstrong, who thinks before he speaks, if he speaks at all. In real life, Buzz Aldrin added fuel to a controversy that is perhaps tanking the film — a controversy he perhaps wishes he could end but which is now beyond his control.
Even so, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the moon-landing as a human or even a personal victory, not merely a national one.
Ryan Gosling’s remarks were bad press, and probably didn’t reflect the feelings of the directors and the writers, who weren’t trying to make a political statement at all. Perhaps it would have been prudent to stay silent, considering the role his remarks have played in helping tank the film.
Which is sad, because he shouldn’t have to. It’s entirely unsurprising to see him make comments that emphasize the landing as a human achievement, above and beyond whatever national victory it signalled in its day. Cannot someone from, say, Indonesia reminisce on the day that humans landed on the moon? Or must they only reminisce on the day that America landed on the moon? Are we so insecure that we cannot recognize that this was, indeed (as Armstrong put it), “a giant leap for mankind,” and not merely for the U.S. of A.?
Further, Gosling is Canadian and doesn’t really have even reason to be patriotic about American history. Do we have any right to insist that he be an American patriot, merely because he played one on screen? I’m not sure we do.
And finally, apparently the astronauts themselves were all comfortable calling this an achievement for all mankind. The President of the United States himself seemed fine with it. In fact, they all conspired in an anti-American, globalist plot to plant this plaque on the moon (that they got away with this anti-American act of treason in the heights of the Cold War is particularly daring):
So it actually appears that Gosling was right that this was intended as a victory for mankind, and not merely America. That not even this was included in the film simply shows that “globalism” was far from the minds of the directors and writers. If their intent was really to advance globalistic ideologies (over and against nationalistic ideologies), including this entirely factual piece of history would have helped their message. But they didn’t — because again, that wasn’t their goal. Their goal was to highlight Armstrong’s personal journey.
The flag controversy reveals where conservative patriotism has drifted towards nationalism.
Patriotism is a celebration of the basic principles of liberty, and also an acknowledgement of our national history and heritage. We can take pride in our nation, but are also willing to critique it when needed; and we do not elevate our national interests above basic interests in freedom and human dignity. Patriotism might lead us to reverence the flag as a symbol of sacrifice, freedom, and sovereignty. But patriotism recognizes that our national loyalty is always contoured by a higher loyalty to God, and a broader recognition of the universal brotherhood of man.
Nationalism is the elevation of one’s nation-state over others, and an eagerness to elevate the interests of the nation over other basic concerns, such as common humanity or human dignity. Our national identity becomes our primary identity, our national loyalties become our highest loyalties. A symptom of nationalism is when our identity as Americans overtakes and supersedes our identity as Latter-day Saints or as members of God’s eternal family (which includes all human beings on earth).
Put another way, patriotism is what makes us cheer for USA’s team at the Olympics. Nationalism is what makes us “boo” other nation’s teams. Patriotism is what commits us to helping advance the interests of our local communities and nation (a good thing); nationalism leads us to adopt an adversarial relationship with other communities and nations to do so (a bad thing). Patriotism can be thought of as an acknowledgement and celebration of national heritage, and a commitment to its guiding principles; in contrast, nationalism is tribalism writ large.
I’m a social conservative, economic libertarian, and a patriotic American. I get chills when I hear the national anthem. I reverence the founding fathers. I am an Eagle scout who has lead perhaps a hundred flag ceremonies, and who have respectfully retired dozens of U.S. flags in solemn ceremonies, where I came to respect it as a symbol of freedom, a symbol of sacrifice, and a symbol of the blessing it is to live in this nation. And few things will raise my ire more than to see American citizens mutilate the flag to make a political point.
And yet I am deeply troubled by the national conversation going on among conservatives over this film. Matt Walsh, a notoriously brash conservative writer, has noticed the same thing, and has defended the movie. The backlash he has received in the comments of his post concerns me. The general sentiment seems to be that it is a moral crime to tell the story of the first man to walk on the moon without making it a movie about American exceptionalism.
When some commenters have pointed out that it’s a movie about Armstrong’s personal journey, not about the Cold War and America’s victory over Russia, the response from others seems to be, “And that’s exactly the problem.” In other words, how dare they make a movie about Armstrong, instead of a movie about America. When told that the climax of the film is the emotional catharsis of Armstrong letting go of his grief, the response from many is, “Well, it shouldn’t have been, it should have been about America’s achievement and victory over the Soviets.”
A stifling political correctness enforced by conservatives
The very idea of “politically correctness” is that some stories, some facts, some traditions, some performances either work against — or don’t advance enough — the interests or narratives of preferred by the ascendent political tribe. And so we set up “litmus” tests that people must follow in order to signal their fealty to the correct political tribes. That’s how totally non-political and ordinary things like gender pronouns and toy colors become deeply politicized. It’s asinine because nobody wants their pronoun choices or the color of their child’s toy to signal anything about their political priorities. Nobody wants to monitor every mundane aspect of their lives to ensure that they aren’t mistakenly sending grave and dangerous signals about their politics.
The accusation against FIRST MAN is not merely that its historically inaccurate (a false accusation, it’s extremely historically accurate), but that it’s politically incorrect. That is, it does not pass the right political litmus tests, and does not make the right political performances. It’s a symptom of a growing and equally stifling “political correctness” from the right. This political correctness is bred and encouraged by nationalism, and similarly creates asinine litmus tests, and similarly brings politics into what are otherwise non-political questions and considerations.
Just as people are (metaphorically) mobbed or boycotted for not engaging in the correct progressive usages and performances, we see people being (metaphorically) mobbed or boycotted for not engaging in the correct conservative usages and performances. Except there’s nothing in conservative (or even patriotism) thought that requires a movie about Neil Armstrong to also be about American exceptionalism, so the political correctness we are seeing here has little to do with conservatism (or patriotism) and everything to do with nationalism. (And besides that, the movie does showcase American exceptionalism. Just not with that scene.)