Revising History, Moon Landing Edition

A movie titled “First Man” is about to be released. It has been described as a “biopic” about Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. So the 1969 moon landing by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin is presumably the high point of the film.

When Armstrong and Aldrin emerged from the moon lander, the first thing they did was to plant an American flag:

The second was to receive a congratulatory telephone call from President Richard Nixon:

“First Man” is being criticized for not showing the astronauts planting the American flag. I assume it also leaves out the Nixon phone call, but I don’t know that. The actor who plays Armstrong, Ryan Gosling, a Canadian, defends the film’s omission of the flag:

“I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that’s how we chose to view it,” he explained. “I also think Neil was extremely humble, as were many of these astronauts, and time and time again he deferred the focus from himself to the 400,000 people who made the mission possible.”

“So I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero,” he continued. “From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”

But Neil’s first act was to unfurl the flag, so the film doesn’t reflect him.

We all know the biases that underlie Hollywood’s editorial decisions. There is no need to belabor that point here. What bothers me most about this incident is the rewriting of history. When most people watch “First Man,” they will assume that depictions of actual, historic events in the movie are accurate. If there is no flag in the film, it will not occur to them to wonder whether there was a flag in real life. If Armstrong is depicted in the movie as a citizen of the world, it will not occur to them to wonder whether in real life, he was an American patriot.

We see this transmutation of history in films all the time, often in more brazen forms. Oliver Stone made “JFK,” which depicts the crazed and despicable Jim Garrison as a hero and peddles absurd conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination. The movie “Truth” enacts a wholly false account of the Rathergate controversy, and portrays Mary Mapes, who tried to swing a presidential election by publishing smears against President Bush that she had good reason to know were false, as a heroine.

The problem with such fantasy productions is twofold. First, the lies always lean in the same direction. Hollywood changes history to promote left-wing narratives. Second, movies live on more or less forever. An insomniac businessman turns on the TV set in his hotel room. He scans the movies available for in-room viewing and comes across “Truth.” Hmm. Sounds interesting. He watches it. A young couple has decided to spend the evening chilling with Netflix. There is a film on a subject they have vaguely heard about, the Kennedy assassination, but about which they know nothing: “JFK.” They watch it.

Hollywood’s lies are forever. As time goes by, and fewer people remember the truthful version of events, their capacity to deceive probably grows rather than diminishing. “First Man” represents a more subtle deceit than “JFK” or “Truth,” but it is deceit nonetheless.

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