Neil Armstrong and the flag
History is usually airbrushed to remove a figure who has fallen out of favor with a dictatorship, or to hide away an episode of national shame. Leave it to Hollywood to erase from a national triumph its most iconic moment.
The new movie “First Man,” a biopic about the Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, omits the planting of the American flag during his historic walk on the surface of the moon.
Ryan Gosling, who plays Armstrong in the film, tried to explain the strange editing of his moonwalk: “This was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement. I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero.” Armstrong was a reticent man, but he surely considered himself an American, and everyone else considered him a hero. (“You’re a hero whether you like it or not,” one newspaper admonished him on the 10th anniversary of the landing.)
Gosling added that Armstrong’s walk “transcended countries and borders,” which is literally true, since it occurred 238,900 miles from Earth, although Armstrong got there on an American rocket, walked in an American spacesuit and returned home to America.
Apollo 11 was, without doubt, an extraordinary human achievement. Armstrong’s famous words upon descending the ladder to the moon were apt: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” A plaque left behind read: “HERE MEN FROM THE PLANET EARTH FIRST SET FOOT UPON THE MOON, JULY 1969 A.D. WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND.”
But this was a national effort that depended on American derring-do, sacrifice and treasure. It was a chapter in a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union that involved national prestige and the perceived worth of our respective economic and political systems. The Apollo program wasn’t about the brotherhood of man, rather about achieving a national objective before a hated and feared adversary did.
The Soviets putting a satellite, Sputnik, into orbit first was a profound political and psychological shock. The historian Walter A. McDougall writes in his book on the space race, “The Heavens and the Earth”: “In the weeks and months to come, Khrushchev and lesser spokesmen would point to the first Sputnik, ‘companion’ or ‘fellow traveller,’ as proof of the Soviet ability to deliver hydrogen bombs at will, proof of the inevitability of Soviet scientific and technological leadership, proof of the superiority of communism as a model for backwards nations, proof of the dynamic leadership of the Soviet premier.”
The U.S. felt it had to rise to the challenge. As Vice President Lyndon Johnson put it, “Failure to master space means being second best in every aspect, in the crucial arena of our Cold War world. In the eyes of the world first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”
The mission of Apollo 11 was, appropriately, soaked in American symbolism. The lunar module was called Eagle, and the command module Columbia. There had been some consideration to putting up a U.N. flag, but it was scotched — it would be an American flag and only an American flag.
The video of Armstrong and his partner Buzz Aldrin carefully working to set up the flag — fully extend it and sink the pole firmly enough in the lunar surface to stand — after their awe-inspiring journey hasn’t lost any of its power.
The director of “First Man,” Damien Chazelle, argues that the flag planting isn’t part of the movie because he wanted to focus on the inner Armstrong. But, surely, Armstrong, a former Eagle Scout, had feelings about putting the flag someplace it had never gone before?
There may be a crass commercial motive in the omission — the Chinese, whose market is so important to big films, might not like overt American patriotic fanfare. Neither does much of our cultural elite. They may prefer not to plant the flag — but the heroes of Apollo 11 had no such compunction.