As a self-described space-nerd that uses a white noise machine that produces the ambient sounds of the starship Enterprise to drown out the melodious tones of nursery rhymes and temper tantrums taking place just outside my office door, it’s safe to say that I was excited to hear that there was a Neil Armstrong biopic in development. Ryan Gosling may not have been my top choice for the first man on the moon, as Armstrong was a notably understated character that tended to shy away from the spotlight — and Gosling is the sort of guy I can imagine my wife stumbling over her words around — but the trailer has done away with a great deal of my concern, as he seems to depict the no-nonsense but passionate Armstrong I’ve read about without leaning into his heartthrob status.
But then, there was another controversy brewing, one highlighted by a piece in the UK’s Telegraph: “First Man,” the story of America’s triumphant arrival on the moon, is reportedly bereft of much of the patriotic imagery one might expect from a biopic the covers what is, perhaps, the greatest American accomplishment to date. In today’s political atmosphere, where everyone accuses everyone of either being too American or not American enough, the omission of heavy handed flag waving now promises to be a real point of conflict among American audiences who are eager to infer deeper political meaning in anything they come across. To some, choosing not to show Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon in the film (as they reportedly chose to do), is an affront to national pride, and a sign of Hollywood’s anti-American agenda.
Now, I’ve written in the past about about the influence foreign markets, and indeed, foreign governments have on the films that are produced here in the United States, and although Gosling has pointed out in interviews that the lack of Old Glory branding in this film was meant to convey that reaching the moon was a human accomplishment so significant it warrants sharing with the world, it’s hard to deny that the decision was made, at least in part, because too many American flags would make selling this film in Chinese markets more difficult. While the artists involved may try to tell you that limiting the shots of red, white, and blue was a decision born out of international goodwill, the truth, of course, is likely that it was a financial one… but here’s the twist: I don’t care.
Neil Armstrong was a man that had a better understanding of celebrity than most. He knew that who he was, a regular guy with flaws and passions, could never be enough to live up to the legend that was the first man on the moon. That’s why, in large part, he tended to avoid the spotlight: content in allowing the legend of Neil Armstrong to survive in the vacuum he created with his absence. Had he instead chosen to be an outspoken public figure, his accomplishments would always be viewed through the scope of his politics and social status. Instead, he knew that his name, his accomplishments, now belonged to something greater than himself, and he honored that idea by shunning the public’s attention on more occasion than once.
Armstrong’s story, while certainly motivated in large part by a patriotic love for his country, is one of a man hard at work. Ask any service member that’s spent time in uniform or any modern astronaut that’s risked their life to expand the bounds of human understanding: they do the work with a flag on their shoulder, but in the midst of it, while you’re staring a challenge in the face and looking for solutions, lofty ideals like patriotism are never at the forefront of your mind. You’re focused on the job at hand. You’re focused on mission accomplishment. There’ll be time for flag waving when the work is done.
It’s because of my experience in service to my country that I often see heavy handed patriotic themes in movies of this sort as distracting from the greater story at play. I know Neil Armstrong was a patriot. I know America put a man on the moon. And I’m pretty confident that in those exciting days of the Gemini and Apollo programs, most of the people involved were too busy doing their jobs to spend much time opining about the inherent superiority of the United States. That’s not what patriotism is. If you spend twelve hours of your day busting your knuckles and racking your brain to help accomplish something great on behalf of your nation, I don’t require that you end your day reciting the pledge of allegiance with a tear in your eye to confirm your status as a great American.
Early accounts of “First Man” point to a technical, economic drama that approaches the challenges and risks faced by great man like Neil Armstrong in a realistic way, offering what some have called the most realistic depiction of human space flight to date. Personally, I can’t wait to watch it, even if some people with similar politics to my own can’t get past the idea that Armstrong won’t be shown singing the Star Spangled Banner as he pilots the lunar lander to the surface of the moon. Armstrong was a great American, and that much can be inferred by the ideals he embodied and the passion he put into his work.
Because patriotism was never supposed to be about who hoists the flag the highest – it’s about celebrating the accomplishments and the ideals of the people living beneath it. America isn’t a collection of symbols, it’s a collection of human beings that band together to accomplish great things.
I’m ready to celebrate Neil Armstrong as one of those people.
Watch the trailer below: