Home Screen Flagging First Man: Cinema’s loose relationship with history

Flagging First Man: Cinema’s loose relationship with history

James Garbett discusses the art versus accuracy debate spurned by Damien Chazelle's First Man


It doesn’t feel like a hyperbole to state that the controversy regarding First Man’s American flag moment has caused something of a media circus. Damien Chazelle’s most recent film, after his continuing success with Whiplash and La La Land, follows the lead-up and eventual landing of the Apollo 11 mission. He makes the choice to specifically focus on the trials and tribulations of Neil Armstrong himself. However, the point of contention is Chazelle’s choice not to show the iconic moment of Armstrong and Aldrin planting the American flag upon the moon’s surface. When news of this emerged from the Venice Film Festival, its glowing reviews were seemingly unheeded as boycotts and Twitter meltdowns had already ensued online. President Trump described it as a “terrible thing”, Buzz Aldrin posted ambiguous pictures of the landing, and the subsequent but nevertheless anticipated furious uproar of various 280-character statements dominated the cinematic corner of the internet.

But reduced down to the basic fundamentals, is this a matter of art versus accuracy? It’s a paradigm that creatives have wrestled with tirelessly for decades, and it’s what most websites are taking away from the story. Chazelle’s insistence that the move is not a political statement verifies this possible issue as an artistic one, with leading man Gosling stating the moon landing “transcended countries and borders” and was “widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it”. But many find issue with how this decision would result in the omission of the historic moment, especially in a time where America endures a politically turbulent period of its history.

But the art versus accuracy debate is a superfluous one to have. At this point of writing, the film is yet to be released in the US or UK and most of those feeling irritated about First Man are in fact yet to actually see it. Adages about assumptions spring to mind, especially since reviewers such as Brian Tallerico described it as “probably the most patriotic film in years” and the website, Vulture, clarifying that the American Flag isn’t some sort of absent entity within the film. In fact, the flag is seen not only upon the Mare Tranquillitatis itself, but also various points throughout the film. A total number of twelve was the estimate the website concluded.

‘First Man seems to be a peculiar case study as it’s not a malformation of accuracy, rather an omission of it’

This isn’t a particularly unique controversy however, as Alissa Wilkinson pointed out, when it was revealed that Darren Afronsky’s Noah didn’t mention God specifically within the film, there was outcry that any presence of the almighty is absent within the movie, as if Afronsky, an atheist, was twisting his own meaning and motive onto the Genesis narrative. This wasn’t actually the case; it was an artistic decision that Afronsky made by only referring to God as “The Creator”. Whether this creative decision worked within the context of the film is another matter entirely. This was one of many creative decisions Afronsky took, as after all Noah had twenty-foot-tall rock monsters which I don’t remember reading about in Genesis. But the limitation of the reference to God didn’t stop many individuals from refusing to see the film.

First Man seems to be a peculiar case study as it’s not a malformation of accuracy, rather an omission of it. But historical films to which the events that they are based are embedded within the public consciousness, normally have a list of boxes to tick, as they show what audiences will recognise on screen and the removal of this seminal moment is peculiar to say the least. However, comparing First Man to historically inaccurate films doesn’t clarify the issue, as most of the choices made around these imprecisions are done to create drama or condense run times. Selma received criticism for changing the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr and President Johnson. But as director of Selma, Ava DuVernay clarified, “the movie is not a documentary. I’m not a historian. I’m a storyteller”. This does relate to First Man’s own struggle as screenwriter Josh Singer stated that their paramount intention was trying to show what was in Armstrong’s head more so than the event itself. This is a different perspective of the event to the public one, and so the decision begins to become more understandable with this knowledge.

‘This is a different perspective of the event to the public one’

Ultimately, it’s difficult to applaud or condone this decision – after all, First Man won’t be arriving in Cinemas until October 12th, and it feels imprudent to comment if the artistic decision is a good one until it has been seen in the very context it was meant to be experienced. There are countless occasions where details regarding a film have been released and a subsequent fan outcry has ensued, but after the film has been released many of the vocal protesters have quietly eaten their words. The announcements of Heath Ledger and Daniel Craig’s castings as Joker and Bond respectively, spring to mind.

The debate regarding art versus accuracy can properly ensue upon the film’s release and not before, doing so would be an incomplete and subsequently foolish argument. You would think that individuals would have learnt their lesson by now about jumping to conclusions regarding creative decisions, and it’s one that can’t be judged until the credits on First Man have rolled.

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