FIRST MAN: An Intimate Portrait of an American Patriot

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This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Exploring Entertainment through a Gospel Lens

Directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling as the titular character, Neil Armstrong, FIRST MAN offers a historically accurate portrait of the first man who walked on the moon. Most of the cinematography is done using a hand held camera, up close and personal to the characters, highlighting the theme of the movie: a personal, intimate look at some of the men and women involved the first moon landing. While 1960s Cold War era politics serves as a setting and backdrop of the film, those themes are always background themes that take backseat to the more intimate, personal, and emotional journeys of the characters.

The movie has struggled in the box office, but it is not because of the quality of the film or the story choices made — it is an unfortunate casualty of the too-politicized culture wars of today. In fact, using that metaphor, I would call First Man a civilian casualty, for the film itself makes no overtures one way or another in these culture wars. It is a neutral party that has been caught in the cross hairs through no fault of its own. More on this shortly.

FIRST MAN is clean and family friendly, although intense at moments

There is only one non-”family friendly” moment in the entire film, and it is a single use of the f-word. In fact, I don’t remember any other swearing in the film (though it could have been there, I just don’t recall). My suspicion is that the f-word was included for no other reason than to earn the film a more lucrative PG-13 rating. (It is unfortunate that so many moviegoers see PG-13 films as more “serious” and more worth our time and attention. In fact, I’ve at times thought that PG films must cater towards younger audiences and would be less interesting to me as an adult. Time to repent of that.)

That aside, the film is clean and family friendly. It has dramatic moments that would be intense for younger audiences. But any audience that enjoyed the movie APOLLO 13 would enjoy this film as well. FIRST MAN is, perhaps, an even more family friendly film than that one, since APOLLO 13 was riddled with profanity in a way that FIRST MAN is not. There are many scenes, thought, that deal with death and similarly heavy emotional themes of grief.

FIRST MAN is emotional, sincere, and accurate

As an intimate portrait of Neil Armstrong, the movie gets up close and personal into how Armstrong deals with emotion. In ways that are apparently true to the historical person of Armstrong, Ryan Gosling plays Armstrong as a man who is filled with emotion, but who is intensely private about it. He does not want to express his feelings in the presence of others, not even his own wife — a point of conflict at times in the film. Even when asked by a reporter about how he felt being chosen for the mission, his only response was, “I was pleased.” He would not offer any more than that to any public audience, and hardly more than that to a private one.

While some of Armstrong’s colleagues have claimed that the movie was not true to the character of Armstrong, it seems that their critiques are based less on the movie itself, and more on Gosling’s comments about the movie. Those closest to Armstrong have said that the movie is very accurate in its portrayal not only of Armstrong, but also his wife. His two sons have said that the film was pitch perfect in portraying both their father and their mother. On all other historical details, the movie is almost exactly accurate, oftentimes taking dialogue straight from historical records. For other sources on this, see here, here, and here.

There is, in fact, the only aspect of the film wholly invented by the writers: when Armstrong leaves his daughter’s bracelet on the moon. However, we don’t know that it didn’t happen, Armstrong’s family had no objections to it. Further, we know that Armstrong did, in fact, name the crater he stood by after his daughter, and paused there for a time remembering her. All the writers added was him leaving a bracelet there. Armstrong never admitted — but also never denied — doing something like that. We know that other astronauts did similar things. I’ll forgive the writers for adding that detail. It works.

One particularly interesting cinematic choice added to the realism, during the film’s depiction of Armstrong’s first trip into space on the Gemini 8 mission. The purpose of the launch was to test whether it was possible to find another ship in orbit and dock with it. The entire mission is shown from within the cockpit, approximating Armstrong’s own point of view. Where I expected exterior shots of the rocket launching, stages separating, or even the docking in full CGI, we didn’t get any of that. All we see of those moments is what Armstrong himself could see from his tiny cockpit window.

The choice to show it entirely from within the cockpit highlighted how claustrophobic those launches really were. As audiences, we are used to seeing everything that’s happening in full widescreen format. But as an astronaut, you are strapped into a tiny cockpit on top of a tower of explosives. And you can’t see what’s happening beneath you. You can barely see anything at all through the very tiny windows. And everything is shaking like crazy. This was highlighted even more when things started to go wrong. Even then, audiences weren’t given a privileged view of what was happening — all you know is that things are starting to spin and they can’t figure out why. It showed just how precarious and dangerous the entire endeavor was.

There isn’t the slightest hint of anti-American globalism in the film, contrary to reports

At the film’s screening, Ryan Gosling made an aside about how the first trip to the moon was a “human achievement,” rather than a uniquely American accomplishment, and that this was why the film didn’t depict Armstrong and Aldrin planting an American flag. “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” he said. This comment erupted into a cauldron of controversy that currently threatens to tank the film, as conservative moviegoers everywhere are committed to boycotting it. Millions of Americans believe that the flag planting was intentionally left out as a (Kaepernick-style) slight against America, in order to advance an anti-American globalist agenda.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The flag is everywhere in the film. The flag is even shown on the moon. The Cold War themes are in the movie. Russia is still a national enemy. The characters are loyal citizens. At one point at the very end, they even show a French woman talking about how she always knew America would be the ones to land on the moon. The flag planting scene itself was left out because:

  1. The original flag planting wasn’t particularly dramatic to begin with. The flag was hard to keep upright, and hard to unfurl. Making the moment accurate would have made it fumbling and anti-climatic.
  2. Because it distracted from the real climax of the film, which was Neil Armstrong’s personal victory over grief over the death of his 2 year old daughter. The emotional climax of the film was when he left behind a bracelet owned by his daughter.

As the director himself said, “To address the question of whether this was a political statement, the answer is no. My goal with this movie was to share with audiences the unseen, unknown aspects of America’s mission to the moon — particularly Neil Armstrong’s personal saga and what he may have been thinking and feeling during those famous few hours.”

In short, the film wasn’t a docudrama of the cold war space race. It was a dramatic retelling of Neil Armstrong’s personal emotional journey with grief. And so the directors and the writers focused the climax of the film on that personal journey. And it worked. The flag planting would have interfered with that focus. It would have dueled with the real climax for the emotional attention of the audience. Politics was possibly the furthest thing from their minds when making these editorial decisions. Telling Armstrong’s story was their priority.

We should note here that Buzz Aldrin originally tweeted what seemed to be a criticism of the film. But then went and saw the film, and has apparently approved of it. This is supremely ironic, since the movie (accurately) portrays Buzz Aldrin as a man who speaks before he thinks, in contrast with Armstrong, who thinks before he speaks, if he speaks at all. In real life, Buzz Aldrin added fuel to a controversy that is perhaps tanking the film — a controversy he perhaps wishes he could end but which is now beyond his control.

Even so, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the moon-landing as a human or even a personal victory, not merely a national one.

Ryan Gosling’s remarks were bad press, and probably didn’t reflect the feelings of the directors and the writers, who weren’t trying to make a political statement at all. Perhaps it would have been prudent to stay silent, considering the role his remarks have played in helping tank the film.

Which is sad, because he shouldn’t have to. It’s entirely unsurprising to see him make comments that emphasize the landing as a human achievement, above and beyond whatever national victory it signalled in its day. Cannot someone from, say, Indonesia reminisce on the day that humans landed on the moon? Or must they only reminisce on the day that America landed on the moon? Are we so insecure that we cannot recognize that this was, indeed (as Armstrong put it), “a giant leap for mankind,” and not merely for the U.S. of A.?

Further, Gosling is Canadian and doesn’t really have even reason to be patriotic about American history. Do we have any right to insist that he be an American patriot, merely because he played one on screen? I’m not sure we do.

And finally, apparently the astronauts themselves were all comfortable calling this an achievement for all mankind. The President of the United States himself seemed fine with it. In fact, they all conspired in an anti-American, globalist plot to plant this plaque on the moon (that they got away with this anti-American act of treason in the heights of the Cold War is particularly daring):

So it actually appears that Gosling was right that this was intended as a victory for mankind, and not merely America. That not even this was included in the film simply shows that “globalism” was far from the minds of the directors and writers. If their intent was really to advance globalistic ideologies (over and against nationalistic ideologies), including this entirely factual piece of history would have helped their message. But they didn’t — because again, that wasn’t their goal. Their goal was to highlight Armstrong’s personal journey.

The flag controversy reveals where conservative patriotism has drifted towards nationalism.

Patriotism is a celebration of the basic principles of liberty, and also an acknowledgement of our national history and heritage. We can take pride in our nation, but are also willing to critique it when needed; and we do not elevate our national interests above basic interests in freedom and human dignity. Patriotism might lead us to reverence the flag as a symbol of sacrifice, freedom, and sovereignty. But patriotism recognizes that our national loyalty is always contoured by a higher loyalty to God, and a broader recognition of the universal brotherhood of man.

Nationalism is the elevation of one’s nation-state over others, and an eagerness to elevate the interests of the nation over other basic concerns, such as common humanity or human dignity. Our national identity becomes our primary identity, our national loyalties become our highest loyalties. A symptom of nationalism is when our identity as Americans overtakes and supersedes our identity as Latter-day Saints or as members of God’s eternal family (which includes all human beings on earth).

Put another way, patriotism is what makes us cheer for USA’s team at the Olympics. Nationalism is what makes us “boo” other nation’s teams. Patriotism is what commits us to helping advance the interests of our local communities and nation (a good thing); nationalism leads us to adopt an adversarial relationship with other communities and nations to do so (a bad thing). Patriotism can be thought of as an acknowledgement and celebration of national heritage, and a commitment to its guiding principles; in contrast, nationalism is tribalism writ large.

I’m a social conservative, economic libertarian, and a patriotic American. I get chills when I hear the national anthem. I reverence the founding fathers. I am an Eagle scout who has lead perhaps a hundred flag ceremonies, and who have respectfully retired dozens of U.S. flags in solemn ceremonies, where I came to respect it as a symbol of freedom, a symbol of sacrifice, and a symbol of the blessing it is to live in this nation. And few things will raise my ire more than to see American citizens mutilate the flag to make a political point.

And yet I am deeply troubled by the national conversation going on among conservatives over this film. Matt Walsh, a notoriously brash conservative writer, has noticed the same thing, and has defended the movie. The backlash he has received in the comments of his post concerns me. The general sentiment seems to be that it is a moral crime to tell the story of the first man to walk on the moon without making it a movie about American exceptionalism.

When some commenters have pointed out that it’s a movie about Armstrong’s personal journey, not about the Cold War and America’s victory over Russia, the response from others seems to be, “And that’s exactly the problem.” In other words, how dare they make a movie about Armstrong, instead of a movie about America. When told that the climax of the film is the emotional catharsis of Armstrong letting go of his grief, the response from many is, “Well, it shouldn’t have been, it should have been about America’s achievement and victory over the Soviets.”

A stifling political correctness enforced by conservatives

The very idea of “politically correctness” is that some stories, some facts, some traditions, some performances either work against — or don’t advance enough — the interests or narratives of preferred by the ascendent political tribe. And so we set up “litmus” tests that people must follow in order to signal their fealty to the correct political tribes. That’s how totally non-political and ordinary things like gender pronouns and toy colors become deeply politicized. It’s asinine because nobody wants their pronoun choices or the color of their child’s toy to signal anything about their political priorities. Nobody wants to monitor every mundane aspect of their lives to ensure that they aren’t mistakenly sending grave and dangerous signals about their politics.

The accusation against FIRST MAN is not merely that its historically inaccurate (a false accusation, it’s extremely historically accurate), but that it’s politically incorrect. That is, it does not pass the right political litmus tests, and does not make the right political performances. It’s a symptom of a growing and equally stifling “political correctness” from the right. This political correctness is bred and encouraged  by nationalism, and similarly creates asinine litmus tests, and similarly brings politics into what are otherwise non-political questions and considerations.

Just as people are (metaphorically) mobbed or boycotted for not engaging in the correct progressive usages and performances, we see people being (metaphorically) mobbed or boycotted for not engaging in the correct conservative usages and performances. Except there’s nothing in conservative (or even patriotism) thought that requires a movie about Neil Armstrong to also be about American exceptionalism, so the political correctness we are seeing here has little to do with conservatism (or patriotism) and everything to do with nationalism. (And besides that, the movie does showcase American exceptionalism. Just not with that scene.)

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  1. This was my comment to a couple of your passages from the article above, posted on a particular blog site, shown here:

    Impressed by all of the comments by Jeffrey Thayne on ldsphilosopher, I am not. You could say the same things about patriotism that he is trying to attach to nationalism. In fact ‘patriotism’ is often equated w/”My country, right or wrong”.

    Nationalism is better defined as focusing on or giving imporatance to our national interest, which means we primarily take care of the needs of our own population before expending our resources elsewhere. It is very much like our church teaching that we first take care of our family, then start casting about to see how we can help outside of our family. Nothing at all wrong with that. It is the ‘nationalism’ that Trump is talking about. In fact, he has repeatedly encouraged other countries to do the same.

    Because you believe in the ‘nationalism’ as I’ve partially defined it above, it does not necessarily mean that you have “an eagerness to elevate the interests of the nation over other basic concerns. They are NOT mutually exclusive.

    Thayne is being very restrictive and black-and-white in his definitions. I.e., he is trying to coral the definitions of both nationalism and patriotism in a very black-and-white fashion. This is a defined logical error.

    Granted, nationalism OR patriotism can be overdone and abused in ways that Thayne suggests. But he is largely and obviously succumbing to the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure coming from the political left with all its politically correct requrements. In comments on this subject by Elders Cook, Ballard and Andersen in the years Fall 2017 General Conference, only Cook got it right.

    1. However YOU want to define the terms, the definitions I’m using here are actually fairly widespread. Consider just a few examples:

      I could produce dozens more. The long and the short of it is that the distinction I’ve articulated above is not some eccentric definition I’ve made up — it is a very common way of differentiating the terms. Language is governed by usage, and this is a common usage. You can say we are wrong all day long, but this is, indeed, how many, many people define and differentiate these terms.

      For me, the fact that Elder Ballard and Elder Anderson use the terms similarly doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, but rather, that the understanding articulated above is actually an appropriate way of distinguishing them.

      1. The first definition in my Webster’s is: devotion to one’s nation; patriotism.

        A few more from the top 5-6 searches using the duck-duck-go search engine: First: American Heritage Dictionary gives 3: 1) Devotion to the interests or culture of one’s nation; 2) The belief that nations will benefit from acting independently rather than collectively, emphasizing national rather than international goals; and 3) Aspirations for national independence in a country under foreign domination. Second: Current Meriam Webster: loyalty and devotion to a nation, particularly: a sense of national consciousness. Third: Wikipedia: . . . the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining sovereignty (self-governance) over the homeland. Fourth: top two: 1) spirit or aspirations common to the whole of a nation; 2) devotion and loyalty to one’s own country; patriotism.

        Clearly, these positive definitions are still quite widespread; nor do they include feeling superiority to any other nation. The fact that George Will wants to equate ‘nationalism’ to ‘white nationalism’ has more to do with his hatred of Donald Trump, than anything else.

        At any rate, making an exclusive pejorative out of the term is unfortunate. It constitutes a degradation of the word meaning and loss of the more common nuances of it. Cook understood this, and used a qualifier to make his more negative meaning clear.

        You are obviously very partial to Will’s usage or similar negative useages, and possibly for the same reasons.

        1. We will have to disagree on the use of the word.

          But let’s take a step back from that. What word would you prefer? What word better refers to the worldview I am describing, if that word isn’t nationalism?

          Now, replace all instances of the word “nationalism” in the above article with that word. After doing so, is there anything of substance you disagree with, or only the use of the word?

          If the latter, we are talking semantics — or perhaps merely presentation. If the former, what is it?


          1. I replied to your last. It didn’t take. Why that??

            2nd attempt. Best to use a qualifier to the word nationalism. ‘extreme nationalism’, ‘fascistic nationalism’ are two that would work. You could think of more. Otherwise, you promulgate a one-sided, confusing dialogue or polemic. Your choice of course.

            One immediate problem caused by your confusion is the fact that Trump supporters, including Trump, side with the good kind of nationalism. So persisting in your negative usage, you are automatically labelling all of these people, including myself, as sympathetic to the negative conotations you favor.

            Why do it? Totally unnecessary and innacurate.

          2. It may be because I see the nationalism of Trump and many of his supporters as exactly the kind of nationalism I’m critiquing here. If you are boycott the NFL because some athlete didn’t stand for the flag, then yes, you having fallen prey to a toxic kind of nationalism, as opposed to patriotism (or if you insist, “good nationalism”). Trump seems to feed on just that kind of nationalism. It is, in fact, that precise brand of nationalism that has led conservatives generally to boycott First Man. Do you deny that it’s Trump supporters generally who have decided that First Man should tank?

            So yeah, that’s why I do that. I don’t actually see Trump as the good guy here. I think his brand of nationalism is toxic and, well, fits exactly the description above of “bad” nationalism.

          3. Not standing for the traditional flag ceremony before an NFL game is taken by many, many people as disrespect for the flag and country. Sorry, but this comes more under the heading of unpatriotic, than ‘toxic nationalism’. The flag and National Anthem are symbols of our country . . . part of our common heritage. Paying these symbols respect in no way indicates those doing so disrespect other countries or people, so your bringing this up as an example of ‘toxic nationalism’, smacks of straw man argumentation.

            But if NFL team owners are OK with allowing the politicalization of a recreational pasttime, so be it. It’s a stupid thing to do, in my view. Trump feels much the same way and has spoken out about it.

            And what is ‘First Man’? You’ve got me there.

            Trump’s brand of nationalism, is to take care of our countrymen first. I.e., bring back manufacturing through better trade deals and penalizing companies that leave the country. It’s called: leveling the playing field, and leads to fair/free trade. He is using tariffs as a bargaining chip. A very intelligent thing to do.

            He also wants to protect our borders. A country that doesn’t do this, eventually ceases to be a country or is broken up into waring enclaves. This includes resisting the powerful movement toward political globalization.

            He’s always said that he expects other countries to do the best for their people and protect their own borders, as well.

            And his efforts to protect Americans first are very akin to what the Church admonishes us to do: take care of your family and go to your extended family for help and resources first, then expand your efforts to help others or seek help from them, in acccordance with your means.

            GDP is up. Unemployment figures for everyone, including blacks and hispanics are at all-time highs. Manufacturing jobs are coming back. This is what Trump is focused on and is actually doing . . . and he is resisting the push toward political globalization. He has repeatedly said this, with the last clear statement of his position being his UN address about a month ago. You should read it.

          4. “Paying these symbols respect in no way indicates those doing so disrespect other countries or people, ”

            Never said it did. Standing for the flag is perfectly patriotic and good. What I said is that boycotting an entire sport because some athlete didn’t stand for the flag is toxic nationalism. And I stand by that.

            “And what is ‘First Man’? You’ve got me there.”

            Have you forgotten the post you are commenting on?

          5. Let me clarify a misstatement in my last comment. Substitute ‘Employment’ for ‘Unemployment’ in last paragraph.

            I was focused on your ‘definition of ‘nationalism’. Actually, your review of ‘First Man’ was perfectly good until you derailed it w/this discussion of ‘nationalism’ vs. patriotism. Sounds like a good movie, otherwise. I’m actually a co-author on an article appearing in the Apollo 15 Preliminary Science report.

            I doubt that many ‘conservatives’ have even heard of this controversy, or if they did, would even care that much about it. If they want to be bothered by it, their choice.

            Being offended by ‘taking the knee’ players to the degree that individuals take a break from NFL football, is similar. They could also be p….. by the game being politicized, not just by what may be regarded as disrespect for the flag and anthem. Hardly ‘toxic nationalism’. And mostly Trump supporters? Who knows. I’ve told you what constitutes the nationalism Trump supporters really like, and it dosn’t fit your negative definitions.

            And if there are some ‘patriots’ who feel strongly enough about the flag and anthem that they will stop watching NFL football, it bespeaks their strong feelings FOR those things. Mirror image. Ask yourself, would it anger you to see the flag desecrated in some horrible way . . . even to the point you might step in and stop it? Reactions to these types of things fall along an emotional spectrum.

            Choosing to tag ‘nationalism’ w/all the negatiave definitions you collected, where the definition is an either/or – black-and-white choice, partakes of the bifurcation fallacy. But I doubt anything I’ve said to you will cause you to temper your position on this, or clean up your logic.

          6. I neglected to note that you did use a modifier in your last use of ‘nationalism’. This is better usage, in my view. So apologies for persisting in tagging your ‘logic’.

            Though I would say “boycotting an entire sport because some athlete didn’t stand for the flag is better described as over-the-top patriotism, and could be considered as cutting off your nose to spite your face.

            I think patriotism has more to do w/how one reacts to one’s national symbols and rites.

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