It was set up so perfectly.
To kick start the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, 2018’s First Man—the epic story of Armstrong’s journey to become the first man to walk on the moon—would be nominated for Best Picture. Ryan Gosling would be nominated for Best Actor for portraying the heroic astronaut.
Yet it was not meant to be, as First Man was accused of being anti-American for failing to show the planting of the American flag on the moon. The conservatives the film depended on stayed at home out of patriotism, ironically boycotting a beautiful movie that depicted the finest moment in the history of our nation. It was an insurmountable hole even the powerful engines of the Saturn V rocket couldn’t help First Man escape. Despite an 87 percent fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes (meaning top-rated movie reviewers loved the movie), the movie only made $44 million domestically on a $59 million budget.
The conservative boycott and the film’s resulting lackluster financial performance is a major reason First Man was slighted during awards season. First Man, Ryan Gosling, and Damien Chazelle were not nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Director, respectively, at the Golden Globes.
For the 2019 Academy Awards, First Man was also snubbed in these categories, though it did pick up nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design, and Best Sound Editing. This is a reminder the Academy was aware of the high production quality of the movie, but something kept it from being sent into orbit.
The movie that picked up the big nominations instead is Black Panther. The nonexistent technology of a fantasy African kingdom thus trumped what a 90-percent-white nation accomplished in 1969 using computers with less power than an iPhone. The success of Black Panther over First Man in part reflects critics’ desire for multicultural fantasy instead of racial reality.
Kate Gardner, a movie reviewer at The Mary Sue, blasted First Man for its whiteness, calling it a “technically stunning film made at the wrong time.”
I’m glad they decided against making it a story of American exceptionalism, but as with most historical films, they decide to focus mostly on white men.
Already, I can hear the fingers clacking away to tell me that the story had to focus on white men, that Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and the other astronauts at the time were mostly white and all male so what did I expect?
And then there’s the political context, which hovers over the film like the moon. Singer and Chazelle peel away the idea of American exceptionalism, and instead leave a tale of the exceptional white man. The political climate is stripped away, referenced to in news broadcasts and one scene of protest. We are given a sanitized version of history, and quite frankly, I do not know whether it would have been worse to have raw patriotism or this whitewashed version of events.
Josh Singer, the screenwriter for First Man, even apologized for his own film. He undermined the extraordinary subject and said it was just a “ordinary family in history story.” He also apologized for the film’s whiteness: “We wanted to be as technically accurate as we could,” he said. “And at the time, it was [all] white men. And that wasn’t right, but that’s what it was. So if you’re gonna be technically accurate—and in part, we’re so technically accurate because we’re trying to shed this new perspective on a narrative that’s been sugarcoated—you’ve got to be accurate and depict the time for all its strengths and flaws.”
One of America’s future elite opinion makers at Harvard also attacked the whiteness of the movie. “Undeniably, white men are at the helm of this film,” wrote Caroline Tsai. “They cluster around clunky computers and tensely murmur to each other. They take long walks. They sit in backyards and clink bottles of beer, gazing at stars. While their story is a valid and meaningful one, it’s also historically been the only one, and in an age of increasing representation—even in another film regarding this very historical event—it’s hard to view First Man as anything other than regression.”
Celebrating great moments in American history, if they involve white males, is “regression.”
Back in 1995, Ron Howard’s brilliant Apollo 13, chronicling the “successful failure” of a seemingly doomed lunar mission that was able to return successfully to Earth, was one of the top grossing movies of the year. It was also nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
No one complained about the whiteness in the movie. No one associated with the movie apologized for the lack of diversity depicted.
But 24 years is an eternity in America’s culture war. American whites have been so bruised and battered that even celebrations of universally acknowledged achievements lead to political criticism.
The two films treat one tragic episode of the space race very differently. Whereas the Apollo 13 briefly mentioned the terrifying death of the three astronauts of Apollo One, First Maninvests a great deal of time on Ed White (played by Jason Clarke), who was Armstrong’s neighbor and the first American to walk in space. We get to know his wife and children as well, so when the fire during a routine test takes the lives of White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chaffee, the audience feels real horror.
While the Apollo One astronauts are burning alive, Armstrong is shown pressing the flesh at an event in Washington, D.C. He is talking to a U.S. senator who expresses doubt about the cost of the mission and public support. Especially when juxtaposed with what is happening to Apollo One, Armstrong’s response captures that quintessential Western spirit of discovery and innovation in the face of danger. “We only learned to fly sixty years ago, so I think if you consider the technological developments in the context of history, it’s really not . . .”
Though he’s interrupted before he can finish his point, one can’t help but reflect on what he said. Within one lifetime, white men traveled from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to the moon.
Yet this spirit of exploration has been sacrificed to the supposed moral imperative of achieving diversity. The fantasy created by Black Panther was an important step in this effort. Believe it or not, Black Panther is the highest rated movie in the history of cinema according to Rotten Tomatoes. After all, what reviewer would endanger his job by giving it a bad review? In contrast to the criticisms of First Man for being too white, Black Pantherwas universally praised for its almost entirely black cast.
Back in 2015, the Academy Awards was attacked for being too white. The Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite took off and Hollywood was condemned for honoring white actors, actresses, and directors, and movies with primarily white casts.
In 2016, these attacks were deafening as the Academy Awards again dared to honor whites. Thus, behind the rallying cry of #OscarsSoWhite, affirmative action came to the Academy Awards.
The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science pledged to double the number of “women and diverse members” and undertook a new recruitment effort to find new members “who represent greater diversity.”
This year’s Oscars represent the fruit of that effort. First Man represents a great American achievement and is criticized and ignored. We aren’t allowed to celebrate America’s greatness because to do so is to celebrate the accomplishments of white men. Instead, we are told to celebrate a fictional ethnostate—that is, as long as it’s black.