Imagine Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “Psycho” minus the legendary shower scene. Or Stephen Spielberg’s “Jaws” without the great white shark menacing the beachgoers, or James Cameron’s “Titanic” without the iceberg striking the ship. Without those memorable scenes, each movie would be less compelling and more forgettable.
Now comes “First Man”, a film drawing early Oscar buzz and currently the toast of the Venice Film Festival. “First Man” is the story of American astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. In it, director Damien Chazelle has omitted the scene of Armstrong planting the American flag on the lunar surface, an essential aspect of the 1969 moon landing and a legendary moment in American history.
To those who remember the moon landing, it might seem indefensible to leave out that iconic moment, but the movie’s star Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong, had no trouble defending the decision. Gosling, a Canadian, was quoted in The Telegraph as saying of the first lunar landing, “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.” He went on to say that it didn’t just represent an American accomplishment, and he concluded, without any supporting evidence, that is how Armstrong viewed it.
The Space Race, a technologic outgrowth of the Cold War, began in earnest in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first manmade satellite to circle the earth. There was no acknowledgement at the time that Sputnik was a “human accomplishment”; it was widely recognized as a Soviet triumph and a demonstration of Soviet technologic superiority. The Eisenhower Administration was justifiably worried about the military implications of Soviet space dominance, and it set off a veritable panic all over America, sparking a revolution in the dormant American educational system.
American insecurity about falling behind only intensified when the Soviet Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth in 1961. Gagarin was transformed into a hero throughout the Communist bloc – no mention by the Soviets of “human accomplishment”, while the United States space program recovered from a series of embarrassing failures. Those were the politics of the era.
The script flipped as a result of President Kennedy’s 1961 exhortation that the United States would reach the moon by the end of the 1960’s, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to the achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Kennedy’s meaning was clear – “this nation” - America - would do this. It would take American money, American rockets, and American technology (with some unmentioned help from ex-Nazi scientists captured after the war).
And it would be manned by American astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, a former Navy fighter pilot, who flew 78 missions during the Korean War, including one in which he was shot down. The first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, praised Armstrong, saying he “dared greatly for his country.” His country. And after the historic flight of Apollo 11, Armstrong reiterated, “In the end it was decided by Congress that this was a United States project. We were not going to make any territorial claim, but we were to let people know that we were here and put up a US flag.”
Did director Chazelle repurpose history for contemporary political aims? He denies it, and he is supported by Neil Armstrong’s sons and “First Man” book author James Hansen. Armstrong’s sons and Hansen issued a joint statement, ““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.”
By now it is common knowledge that Hollywood history is not the same as real history. Leaving out Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon does not rise to the level of fake history like Oliver Stone’s manipulation of the facts in another seminal historical event of the 1960’s, the Kennedy assassination. In his 1991 movie JFK, Stone invented dialogue, staged fictional scenes and created new footage meant to resemble the actual documentary footage, while vouching for the film’s historical accuracy.
Nor does “First Man” appear to be deliberate propaganda in the manner of three of the 20th Century’s greatest films: D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan; Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, a tribute to Hitler’s Third Reich; and Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”, a paean to the Soviet Revolution.
The most likely explanation for Chazelle’s glaring historical omission is that today’s Hollywood films play to an international audience. Sadly, in many parts of the world, especially in light of Donald Trump’s America, the American flag is no longer a heroic star. In some countries it is a supporting player, as it is here, and in other countries, it is a villain. But lest there be any doubt, Neil Armstrong, who died in 2012 and could not be reached for comment, was a true American hero, emphasis on American.
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