Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” kicked off the Venice Film Festival on August 29, and it didn’t take long for one aspect of the movie to draw backlash. The space drama stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and tracks the astronaut’s obsessive mission to become the first man to walk on the surface of the moon. Some critics made note of the fact “First Man” leaves out the iconic image of Armstrong planting an American flag on the moon’s surface, which, according to The Telegraph, “argues that the giant leap for mankind should not be seen as an example of American greatness.”
Gosling got ahead of the backlash during the movie’s Venice press conference, saying Chazelle’s decision to leave out the planting of the American flag was both a conscious choice and an important one in the film’s goal to commit to Armstrong’s subjectivity. The actor, who previously worked with Chazelle on “La La Land,” hailed Armstrong’s moon landing as not just an American victory but “transcending countries and borders.”
“I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” Gosling said. “I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible.”
“He was reminding everyone that he was just the tip of the iceberg – and that’s not just to be humble, that’s also true,” the actor continued. “So I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero. From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”
“First Man” has been widely praised by film critics for telling the Apollo 11 story from the perspective of the astronauts, which Gosling argues further supports the decision to omit the American flag planting. The film is less about the details of the specific scientific and historical details of the moon landing and more about the emotional and physical experience the astronauts faced in risking their lives to get to the moon.
The planting of the flag in 1969 proved controversial, as there were disagreements over whether to use the U.S. flag or the United Nations flag. Armstrong himself didn’t have a preference and only used the American flag when it was decided to do so by Congress. As Gosling noted, the film’s decision to omit the flag is not a political choice but an artistic one to keep the focus of the movie entirely on Armstrong’s perspective.
“First Man” will open in theaters nationwide October 12 from Universal Pictures.