Living in the Shadow of Armstrong
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and with it, we celebrate the intersection of science, technology, aeronautics and the raw heroism of a local legend.
For those that haven’t heard the tale, it’s certainly worth revisiting the transcript. The Apollo 11 moon landing is packed with touch-and-go moments that feel like they could’ve been lifted from a daring dime-store science fiction novel. It’s punctuated with improvisational signature lines like, “the eagle has landed”, and Armstrong’s most famous “It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” sound bite that placed Neil — and the space program — on the world stage.
The events of the Apollo 11 moon landing went down in history as a defining victory for the United States’ space program, but also one for broadcast television. Billed by Variety as the “Greatest Show Off Earth”, the moon landing is the most significant event in twentieth-century televisual broadcasting.
An estimated 530 million people witnessed the moment, revealing the powerful unifying elements of broadcast television. The live feed from the broadcast allowed for a shared experience between domestic and international neighbors, closing the geographical and psychological gap between cultures. As for that impossible task of interstellar space travel, it closed that gap, too. This collective cultural moment put an end to the space race and inspired a new generation of scientists as we all craned our necks to the stars.
With the 50th anniversary approaching, the city of Wapakoneta is bracing for impact. Most recently the appointed 2019 Committee curated a three-part film series exploring the arc of the space race. The series illustrated the individual accomplishments of men and women that made this phenomenal achievement possible.
The highly anticipated First Man (Chazelle, 2018) takes this narrative one step further, looking specifically at Armstrong and his experiences as a man and a national icon. It’s no secret that Armstrong shied away from the spotlight, and this reticence to embrace his role as a national hero unfortunately colored the way that history and his fellow Wapakonetans remember him.
I am one of those Wapakonetans. Because of Armstrong, growing up is a source of pride. When I left to study, it was a geographical and iconographic reference point for those unfamiliar with Ohio, let-alone the multisyllabic name that few can pronounce correctly on the first try. Today it remains a viable reference point. Armstrong’s achievements put Wapak on the map, and that’s nothing to scoff at.
However, what I do find troubling is the overt concern over the omission of the iconic flag-planting moment in First Man. Some feel that Damien Chazelle’s decision to downplay the scene makes it too political, a reflection of the left-wing views of Hollywood. Chazelle, director of critically acclaimed films like Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016), denies this, instead stating that it was more a redirection towards a more intimate portrait of Neil.
I wanted the primary focus in that scene to be on Neil’s solitary moments on the moon — his point of view as he first exited the LEM, his time spent at Little West Crater, the memories that may have crossed his mind during his lunar EVA. This was a feat beyond imagination; it was truly a giant leap for mankind. This film is about one of the most extraordinary accomplishments not only in American history, but in human history. My hope is that by digging under the surface and humanizing the icon, we can better understand just how difficult, audacious and heroic this moment really was.
Putting so much weight in a dramatic biography to represent historical fact is already problematic enough as it is. The outcry has prompted overt patriotic responses from Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s spacemate, and Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio states:
This is total lunacy. And a disservice at a time when our people need reminders of what we can achieve when we work together. The American people paid for that mission, on rockets built by Americans, with American technology & carrying American astronauts. It wasn’t a UN mission.
I don’t take issue with patriotism unless it affects the lives and freedoms of others. Rubio’s comments are troubling because they try to reclaim it, and recast it as unifying nationalistic propaganda. His statement overlooks the thousands of men and women from a diverse set of nationalities that worked on this mission. If anything, targeting the flag-planting scene actually makes it political.
But why are people so upset about one aspect of a biopic film? The controversy around Chazelle’s depiction unleashes fears around representation. While this is nothing new for cinema, especially in treating historical events, there has never been a film as ambitious as Chazelle’s in covering this particular moment.
Remember, the moon landing was broadcast internationally into millions of homes. Though it’s hard to measure the impact it had, those who lived it share the same universal awe-inspiring sentiment. In a sense, each one of their memories plays a role in that collective experience. It’s not that far out to say they even participated in it.
The fear is that Chazelle and his film will rewrite that history or somehow tarnish the memory of it. His decision to downplay the flag-planting scene omits this participation from the narrative and, potentially, omits those memories as well. With the 50th anniversary approaching, the outcry is an attempt to reclaim ownership over our personal histories, memories, and identities. Unfortunately, when you add a flag to the mix — or the omission of — it’s fuel to for patriotic nationalism.
If First Man doesn’t remind us that the moon landing is paid for and brought to you by America, it calls into question that national identity and all of those individual subjectivities, those emotions and memories that comprise the collective experience.
The stakes are just too high.
When Armstrong and Aldrin planted the flag on the moon, those actions and words redefined the lexicon for exploration of uncharted territories. In the case of the moon landing, the flag-planting act wasn’t about territorial ownership. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Perched on the surface of the moon, 240,000 miles from home, Armstrong had a literal worldview gazing back on the Earth. This view no-doubt gave him perspective, perspective that Chazelle, in close conversation with Armstrong’s family, is trying to convey. The film is about a man who accomplished an amazing feat, and this feat was his gift to the world. “First Man” reminds us that.
There will never be any doubt which country — and which small-town — produced the man that gave the world that iconic moment. By attempting to reclaim it, as Rubio suggested, as uniquely American, it diminishes Armstrong’s powerful statement to civilization.
Andrew is a media scholar, journalist, and musician. For collaborations, conversations, or just to say hi, e-mail him at a.clark.writer[at]gmail[dot]com