Weeks before it opened this weekend, “First Man” became embroiled in one of those stupid controversies that are now our economy’s chief product. The movie, in telling the story of Neil Armstrong, does not show him planting the U.S. flag on the moon. Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong, only heightened the criticism of this omission by saying that the moon landing was “widely regarded not as an American, but as a human achievement.”
We see the flag on the moon (and we see many U.S. flags on earth) in the movie. The reason it does not show the flag being planted is that it would be a distraction from the story the movie wants to tell. And this movie is never distracted: Not a moment is wasted.
Its story is not social or political; it is personal. The focus on Armstrong’s psychology can sometimes feel claustrophobic - as can the shots of the interiors of the tin cans he was flying in. But if some of the scenes are unbearable, they are never unwatchable.
So forget the nonsense about the flag. “First Man” uses Armstrong to celebrate the American character or, at least, a certain kind of American character: competitive, driven, risk-taking, technologically adept, laconic, stoic; both practical and romantic.
The movie’s celebration of that character is not, however, uncritical. We see the costs of Armstrong’s devotion to his mission: the costs to him, to his fellow astronauts and their families, and above all to his relationship with his wife and children.
“First Man” lets the critics of the race to the moon have their say, too; it does not pretend that the country was united, although its divisions, like the flag-planting, are not its focus. The lens widens briefly to view the social unrest of the 1960s over Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon.”
Which, let’s face it, could have been an alternative title for the movie. It was predominantly white men who went to the moon, and the movie does not indulge in any revisionism on that point. Yes, they were all white men; but perhaps this was not the most important thing about them.
The movie engages in some guesswork and some dramatic condensation of events. But, so far as this (non-space-buff) reviewer can tell, it is faithful to the history. Its efforts to convey the visual and even tactile sensations of space exploration are close to miraculous.
“First Man” gives us an alternative personality type, too, in Buzz Aldrin, who comes across as boorishly willing to say whatever passes through his mind. We are more Aldrin than Armstrong now. Self-expression reigns over stoicism in the culture.
Hence the movie’s mood of nostalgia, however qualified, for the days when we were reaching for the stars. We admire the men who went to the moon, but we know we would not have done what they did.