Some moon dust has been stirred in the past week as people who've seen the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man have noted it doesn't have a scene in which Armstrong actually plants an American flag on the surface of the moon.
Armstrong and crewmate Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, in the lunar module Eagle. The self-effacing Armstrong never sought publicity and was uncomfortable with many aspects of the notoriety that came with being the first human being to set foot on a place not Earth. He rejected the idea that he himself had any special qualities or deserved that much attention, not quite understanding that people didn't think he landed on the moon because he was special, but that he was special because he landed on the moon. Other than the official 1970 release First on the Moon, co-written by Armstrong, Aldrin and mission pilot Michael Collins, Armstrong kept quiet about his life for many years. In 2005, James Hansen published the Armstrong biography First Man, on which the movie was based. Armstrong passed away in 2012.
Having not seen the movie itself -- it's not scheduled for release in the U.S. until October -- the only kind of comments I can make are about what other people have said. A lot of people, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have slammed the decision to leave out the flag planting. On the other side, Armstrong's sons Rick and Mark and Hansen himself have said the flag is clearly seen in several shots of the time Armstrong and Aldrin spent on the moon. So maybe we all ought to wait and see for ourselves.
And in the meantime, we can remember why nobody pays actors to say their own words. Ryan Gosling, who was minus 11 in 1969, plays Armstrong and he responded to the perhaps premature flag flap with some silly words, to wit: “I don’t think Neil viewed himself as an American hero, quite the opposite.” And, “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement and that’s how we chose to view it.”
First Man director Damien Chazelle has got a couple of strong directorial outings to his credit, helming J. K. Simmons' Oscar-winning performance in Whiplash and Emma Stone's in La La Land. He fares less well as a writer, dragging down his batting average with The Last Exorcism Part II and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Still, that's not a reason to condemn the movie a month before it's out; as the younger Armstrongs and Hansen have both said it's not like the movie has no flag, or replaces the Stars and Stripes with the UN banner or a multi-colored MTV logo. It just doesn't show the actual moment of planting the flagstaff in the lunar soil.
Which in the end doesn't matter anyway, because on July 21, 1969, the actual Neil Armstrong put an actual American flag on the actual moon and, unless we've had some sneaky extrasolar visitors in the ensuing 49 years, it's still there. Here's hoping we go back one day and see for ourselves.