VENICE, Italy—On Friday afternoon, Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida who was thoroughly manhandled by Donald Trump during the presidential election, cooked up the first “controversy” of the 2018 movie awards season.
Rubio, a man who counts Wedding Crashers as one of his top-three all-time favorite films, tweeted the following critique of First Man, filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s moon-landing drama starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong: “This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together,” he wrote. “The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.”
He then linked to an aggregated piece from the respected film journal Business Insider, claiming that First Man not only “omits the American flag being planted on the moon,” but that Gosling defended the decision. The BI piece echoed criticisms in far-right publications like Breitbart, which ran a story with the headline: “Neil Armstrong Movie Starring Canadian Ryan Gosling Doesn’t Feature American Flag.”
During a press conference for the film at the Venice Film Festival, where it made its premiere, Gosling remarked of the Apollo 11 mission, “I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement, that’s how we chose to view it. 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 added, “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. 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.”
Unlike Business Insider, Breitbart or many of the other publications fueling this controversy, I was in attendance for the First Man premiere in Venice. And having actually seen the film, can confirm that while the physical act of planting the American flag into the moon is not portrayed, there are several shots of the American flag flying on the moon—including one long shot as Armstrong and co. disembark.
What’s more, this is an incredibly patriotic film, one that not only does an exceptional job at humanizing astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and all of the other folks at NASA who were instrumental in achieving this historical accomplishment, but also contains numerous scenes of Americans gathered around televisions and radios listening to the moon landing, archival footage of then-President John F. Kennedy’s man-on-the-moon speech, and children in the streets gleefully waving miniature American flags. I mean, there’s even a shot in the film’s trailer of an American child looking up at an American flag waving outside of his home, in awe.
To suggest, as Senator Rubio does, that this film does any sort of disservice to the country is an absolute farce.
First Man indeed doesn’t focus much (if any) of its energy on the United States’ space race with Russia, and it’s all the better for it. We’ve seen that narrative play out time and again. Instead, it dedicates its time and attention to the brave astronauts who sacrificed their lives in service to their country, and mankind—vividly rendering their hopes, their fears and their struggles. Chazelle’s film is a remarkable tribute to these men, and to their families.
But that’s not what any of this is really about, right? Much like our current president, who used to literally phone in to Fox & Friends every year and give Oscar-night recaps, and who once personally orchestrated a smear campaign against Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Senator Rubio is merely trying to wade into the ongoing culture wars—a right-wing ruse meant to distract the American people from issues of real importance, like the hundreds of separated children imprisoned at the border, the staggering death toll from Hurricane Maria (2,975), the ongoing Mueller probe, you name it. With all this going on, it’s downright embarrassing that a senator representing one of the most troubled states in the country is Very Mad about a Ryan Gosling movie.
Oh, and even Neil Armstrong’s own sons are OK with it.