Neil Armstrong’s sons have issued a defense of First Man after the film generated controversy for not including a shot of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon’s surface. Directed by Damien Chazelle, the drama is one of the fall’s most buzzed-about titles and seen by many as a top contender for the Oscars. Following screenings at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, it looks like First Man will indeed be a major player on the awards circuit. Critics have praised Chazelle’s vision and technical mastery, as well as the performances of leads Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy.
Despite the acclaim, First Man became subject to controversy over the weekend when it was reported the movie does not depict the moment when Armstrong (played by Gosling) planted the American flag into the moon. This led to several claims of the film being anti-American – even though many criticizing it have yet to actually see it. Gosling also drew ire for saying he didn’t think Armstrong “viewed himself as an American hero.” All the hullabaloo surrounding the picture has forced Armstrong’s sons to step in and try to calm things down.
In a statement (hat tip Collider), Rick and Mark Armstrong detailed Chazelle’s approach to First Man and how the film “focuses on what you don’t know about Neil Armstrong.” You can read it in full below:
“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.
This is a film that focuses on what you don’t know about Neil Armstrong. It’s a film that focuses on things you didn’t see or may not remember about Neil’s journey to the moon. The filmmakers spent years doing extensive research to get at the man behind the myth, to get at the story behind the story. It’s a movie that gives you unique insight into the Armstrong family and fallen American Heroes like Elliot See and Ed White. It’s a very personal movie about our dad’s journey, seen through his eyes.
This story is human and it is universal. Of course, it celebrates an American achievement. It also celebrates an achievement ‘for all mankind,’ as it says on the plaque Neil and Buzz left on the moon. It is a story about an ordinary man who makes profound sacrifices and suffers through intense loss in order to achieve the impossible.
In short, we do not feel this movie is anti-American in the slightest. Quite the opposite. But don’t take our word for it. We’d encourage everyone to go see this remarkable film and see for themselves.”
As the Armstrongs and others who have seen First Man note, the American flag is clearly visible in a number of shots during the moon landing sequence. There just isn’t a shot that explicitly shows Neil planting it into the moon’s surface. Chazelle himself came out to say that was not a “political statement”; it was merely an artistic decision that had no ill intent behind it. The filmmaker was developing First Man for a number of years (he was attached a year before La La Land came out), so this has been a passion project of his. In all likelihood, Chazelle did everything he could to ensure First Man was a fitting tribute to Neil’s legacy and wouldn’t offend any of the late astronaut’s surviving family members. Rick and Mark’s statement indicate Chazelle did just that, which should be enough to squash any controversy.
It’ll be interesting to see if this “controversy” comes into play as the awards race heats up. It theoretically could have a negative impact on First Man’s box office, but vocal detractors on social media influence commercial performance less than they think. With the Armstrongs jumping in front of the issue before it really caught steam, hopefully it’s just business as usual from here on out and Universal can focus its Oscar campaign on First Man’s various merits – as opposed to having to explain an alleged unpatriotic stance.