'First Man' Review: No Planting of America Flag, BUT...

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Posted: Oct 15, 2018 4:50 PM
'First Man' Review: No Planting of America Flag, BUT...

4/5 stars

No, audiences do not see Ryan Gosling's Neil Armstrong plant the American flag on the moon in the new film First Man. But, I have to say, there were still plenty of #merica moments. Hear me out.

Throughout the film, directed by Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning director of La La Land, the NASA astronauts-in-training are inspired after realizing the Soviets are beating us in the Space Race. The sentiment is: We have to be No. 1. Moreover, a child proudly raises the American flag outside his home, the Apollo 11 astronauts stare at the words "United States" before boarding the spacecraft, and we get real footage of Americans waving the American flag after the historic moon landing - reminders that this was a distinctly American achievement. The patriotism is admittedly quiet, but not absent.

Now, about that controversy. The one that caused some people to boycott the film. Yes, I was irked when Armstrong stepped off the lunar module and stepped on the moon and did not plant the American flag. But, I think there's a reason for that. The film, I believe, was trying to keep the focus on Armstrong' daughter. It seemed that it was her, not his determination to be the first American or even the "first man," that drove his journey to the moon. 

In one of the opening scenes we see Armstrong playing lovingly with his two-year-old daughter Karen, but by then we already know she is dying. The engineer tries to fix his daughter's brain tumor - working obsessively at his desk for an answer, but it is all in vain. A few scenes later she is placed in a casket. 

Armstrong is numbed by several other deaths in his life. He is distraught after learning his fellow pilots have crashed, or have perished in flames resulting from faulty wires during test runs. The latter scene was particularly upsetting. And very true.

Armstrong can't shake his depression. When he gets the call that he had been chosen for the Gemini mission, or when he was awarded the role as commander of Apollo 11, still he could only manage muted celebrations. As he said stoically in the press conference before the moon mission, "I was pleased."

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The actual best part about the film has to be the sound effects. From the beginning, when Armstrong is fighting an out of control spacecraft, to when he steps off the Eagle, we hear every creaking piece of metal, every nervous breath, every eerie alarm, etc. They really do take us along for the ride. And the moment Armstrong takes that historic footstep is incredibly moving. 

For what it's worth, there was a (tiny) American flag on the moon next to the Eagle. You literally had to squint. But hey, it was there. 

And we still get those famous lines: "The eagle has landed" and "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."