The Curious Case of First Man

How a Neil Armstrong Biopic Became a Lightning Rod of Outrage Culture

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Un-American. Treasonous. Racist. Sexist. Instead of describing the next embarrassing farce of the current American political landscape, this incendiary hyperbole is being used to characterize an innocuous Neil Armstrong biopic as one of the worst things to ever happen in Hollywood. Immune from neither the right nor the left, Damien Chazelle’s First Man is a strange casualty of today’s outrage culture, an ugly trend that is slowly suffocating productive discourse in favor of holier-than-thou fist-waving. Empathy and meaningful dialogue are dying, and the current zeitgeist has spoken in the voice of an absurd motto: if you’re not mad about everything, then you don’t care about anything.

The controversy surrounding First Man started when an unsubstantiated (and absolutely untrue) rumor began circulating that Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong film was completely devoid of American flags. Hearsay became right-wing gospel as conservatives railed against the movie, branding it as un-American even though very few people had actually seen it. By the time it was evident that First Man had flags aplenty, it was too late - the rage train had already left the station. Instead of level heads prevailing, the anger shifted to the fact that even though there were flags present in the film, the iconic act of planting Old Glory on the surface of the moon was conspicuously absent. Republican Senator Marco Rubio decried it as “total lunacy,” and Texas Senator Ted Cruz likened the omission to “denying American exceptionalism.” Coupled with the fact that a majority of the famous Americans in the film are portrayed by non-Americans, First Man-hate quickly became a MAGA platform, its casting and singular artistic preclusion on par with treason. But let’s forget for a moment that this non-controversy is absurd in the first place. Those who have actually seen First Man, or better yet, those familiar with Chazelle’s filmography, will know that his cinema is the embodiment of American determinism; whether it’s a jazz drummer’s ambition to be the best, a troubled couple’s foray into show business, or a worn and weary astronaut’s fated trip to the moon, Chazelle makes reckless perseverance a poignant throughline in his work. First Man, contrary to the shitposting of the riled-up masses, is not a film about revisionist space exploration, but a story about a personal journey and one man’s determination and sacrifice. Chazelle, rather than focusing on the unsubtle and ubiquitous imagery of the flag-planting, chose to focus on nuance and emotion:

“In First Man, I show the American flag standing on the lunar surface, but the flag being physically planted into the surface is one of several moments of the Apollo 11 lunar EVA that I chose not to focus upon. 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.”

While many have come to defend the film from its right-wing lashings, others on the left have surprisingly decried the film as racist and sexist - it’s too conservative, ironically. Richard Brody of The New Yorker labeled the film as a “right-wing fetish object,” a film characterized by a “deluded, cultish longing for an earlier era of American life” where Armstrong has “no black colleagues, no female colleagues.” Twitter also had a lot to say. “This is some racist bullshit,” opined one eloquent user. “So much for Hidden Figures, huh?” Which would have been a valid point if there wasn’t actually a Hidden Figures two years ago. Some even took First Man’s predominantly white male casting as “misogynist” and having “dangerous white nationalist sympathies,” completely disregarding how nascent race and gender equality were in the late 1960s.

This incensed, sensationalist rhetoric from both aisles would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous. Since when did tempered and reasonable discussion so easily give way to red-faced and ignorant rage? Sure, there is some merit to a lot of these criticisms (way more on the left than the right, mind you). First Man in the end is a movie about privileged white men going into space, there isn’t a lot of representation in the cast, and perhaps the timing for such a movie in the time of Trump and #MeToo isn’t fantastic, but racist and sexist? Not even remotely. Damien Chazelle isn’t a misogynist and racist Russian mole, just as J.K. Rowling doesn’t keep enslaved Asian women in her basement. In the end, First Man is just a Hollywood film, and to label it as “dangerous” or “racist” or “treasonous” is reckless and irresponsible. When we use the same descriptors to describe fluff entertainment as we do the actual pressing issues facing our society - rampant gun violence, sexual assault, a resurgent alt-right - the lines become blurred and our words mean less and less. First Man, at its best, is a thrilling character study, at its worst, a little insensitive. The use of reductive hyperbole strangles logic and progress, and when the sliding scales and yardsticks of our behavior evaporate, so does productive discourse. Back in 2015, President Obama conveyed these remarkably prescient words in his State of the Union Address:

“Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives.”

Let’s aim to be better and break free from the vicious cycle of ridiculous language and narrow-mindedness that outrage culture has bred. Modern progress is about more than just right vs. left, winning vs. losing, it’s about releasing the death grip we have developed on our opinions and embracing tolerance and compromise.