Is flag controversy to blame for First Man’s performance at the box office?
Before its release, First Man, the movie about Neil Armstrong’s life garnered praise from film critics who used words such as ”epic” and “stellar” to describe it. With its release the movie has acquired other descriptions such as “bomb” and “flop.” An earlier controversy has been used as a potential reason why, but is this reason the actual cause for the low turnout?
First Man is based off of the biography of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong life written by James R. Hansen. The film has generated controversy due to the fact it does not include a scene of Neil Armstrong planting the US flag on the Moon.
While the film might not be resonating with the public, it has already been recognized by those within the motion picture industry with the movie already receiving buzz about a possible Best Picture nomination.
Officials with Universal as well as Variety magazine predicted First Man would make some $20-25 million during its opening weekend (Variety stated the movie could see returns as high as $30 million). Seventeen days after its release, First Man has made less than $38 million. Most estimates place the cost of the film between $60-70 million, but the production cost of the movie varies from source-to-source.
Representatives with Universal Studios reiterated their faith in First Man in a post appearing on IndieWire stating the film will make up this short fall in the long run “We’ll have a great run for weeks and months to come,” Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution said in Indie Wire.
A prediction that appears to have come true was posted on the The HayRide. The opinion-based post stated First Man would likely “bomb” at the box office. Its rationale is that the films producers’ decision to not include the planting of the US flag would offend those who paid for Apollo – the US taxpayer. Per the Op-Ed’s author: “…it was American tax dollars, American technology, American leadership and American blood spent getting to the Moon…It mattered that it’s an American flag on the Moon. It still matters.”
That sentiment appears to have spurred political commentators and others to weigh in on the controversy and if it was at least partly the reason behind First Man’s current performance at the box office.
The Hollywood Reporter stated the film’s inability to fill seats had little, if anything to do with the US flag, a sentiment shared by the Orlando Sentinel. The Hollywood Reporter noted that the actual contributing factors to the film’s lack of success were the competition it was up against; the super hero flick Venom and A Star is Born as well as noting that space films were a “risky proposition.” A report appearing on Vox by Alissa Wilkinson referred to the controversy as “Twitter-fueled much-ado-about-nothing” and “silly.”
BreitBart.com cited The Hollywood Reporter post and countered that a demographic noted in terms of those who watched the film, males over the age of 25, would be less likely to watch a movie that leaves this part of history out.
BreitBart and The Hollywood Reporter’s proclamations aside, there is no verifiable way to determine what role, if any, the historical omission contributed to the film’s disappointing start. While it is possible to poll those who attend the movie, it is not possible to do the same who chose to stay at home and their reasons for doing so.
Armstrong’s famous quote as he stepped onto the Moon, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” mirrors Canadian actor Ryan Gosling’s (who portrays Armstrong in First Man) assessment that Apollo 11 was a “human achievement,” not just an American one. Gosling further expressed that the mission “…transcended countries and borders.”
The Apollo Program was part of a race between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States. The contest or “race” was carried out in an effort to demonstrate which ideology could accomplish more. This division played out in the competition of the Space Race.
The Soviet Union scored numerous “firsts” after the starting gun of the Space Race was fired. The first satellite in orbit (Sputnik), first animal (Laika, a dog), first man (Yuri Gagarin), first woman (Valentina Tereshkova), and the first extra-vehicular activity – were all carried out by the USSR.
When Armstrong touched down on the Sea of Tranquility in July of 1969, the United States was pitched in a brutal war in Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King had all been assassinated within a period of less than five years. Rioting, cultural revolutions and civil protests marked a tumultuous period in the nation’s history. The historical context of that period in US history does not appear to match Gosling’s assertions.
The Apollo Program and the Space Race aren’t the only focus of either the book or the movie, this is reserved for the life of Neil Armstrong.
Family and colleagues
Those who knew him best, Armstrong’s family, namely his two sons Rick and Mark have stated that they approve of the film. Others who flew on Apollo missions disagree that the lack of the flag-planting had any impact on the movie’s success, noting that First Man’s focus is not about Gemini 8 or even Apollo 11.
“I don’t believe the omission of the flag planting had much to do with the success of the movie. There are still a number of countries that do not have the movie yet, so any talk of lack of success is a bit premature. If it turns out that the movie is not as successful as expected, I think it will be more likely caused by the style and the story line,” Apollo 15’s Command Module Pilot, Al Worden told SpaceFlight Insider. “It is not really a space movie, but a movie about Neil’s life and perseverance. Some may find it a bit long and drawn out and not as exciting as expected. But it is a superb movie and a wonderful depiction of Neil’s life and experiences.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.