At the opening night of the Venice Film Festival, First Man, a story of Neil Armstrong’s personal journey to the moon, received a three-minute standing ovation. On the Twitter feeds of conservative politicians, the response was far less rapturous.
The unintentional suggestion that “one giant leap for mankind” was anything less than a purely American achievement sent Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz, and Senator Tom Cotton’s thumbs flying faster than the rocket launch itself, with criticism tightly orbiting around the idea that the movie was un-American. When news leaked that there was no scene showing Neil Armstrong placing the American flag on the moon, it was described respectively by the trio as “total lunacy,” a denial of “American exceptionalism,” and a “shameful Hollywood assault on simple patriotism.” Additionally, Senator Cotton called into question whether money from China might have influenced how the film was shot. With more than a month until its release, there have already been calls to boycott the film.
Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle responded to the criticism denying that the editorial decision was a political statement, instead insisting it was in line with the rest of the film. The flag is shown planted firmly on the surface of the moon. Only the action of Armstrong placing the flag is not shown. “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,” Chazelle explained in the statement. “This film is about one of the most extraordinary accomplishments not only in American history, but in human history. My hope is that by digging under the surface and humanising the icon, we can better understand just how difficult, audacious and heroic this moment really was.”
Ryan Gosling, who played Armstrong, stood by the film’s choice not to include the scene, believing that it took nothing away from the achievement itself. "I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that's how we chose to view it. I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible,” Gosling told Telegraph.
Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark Armstrong, also defended Chazelle’s choice not to include the scene. “Although Neil didn’t see himself that way, he was an American hero. He was also an engineer and a pilot, a father and a friend, a man who suffered privately through great tragedies with incredible grace. This is why, though there are numerous shots of the American flag on the moon, the filmmakers chose to focus on Neil looking back at the earth, his walk to Little West Crater, his unique, personal experience of completing this journey, a journey that has seen so many incredible highs and devastating lows.”
The Senators are taking issue not with the American flag being omitted, but because – in their opinion without seeing the movie – it wasn’t focused on enough. The film doesn’t conceal or deny that the first man on the moon was an American on a mission lead by America. Instead, it focuses on Armstrong’s personal journey and the part of the plaque left on the moon by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin that says “for all mankind.” That seems like a better reminder of “what we can achieve when we work together.”
In a 2001 oral history of the moon landing from Armstrong, he recounted that the placement of the American flag was originally up for debate, and that there was talk of a U.N. flag or a series of flags from multiple countries before the decision was made. "My job was to get the flag there. I was less concerned about whether that was the right artefact to place,” said Armstrong.