Spaceflight Insider

Is flag controversy to blame for First Man’s performance at the box office?

 Ryan Gosling in First Man. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Ryan Gosling in First Man. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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.” 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

Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s fellow Apollo 11 crewmate, expressed his views on the subject by tweeting images of Armstrong standing next to American flag on the Moon. 

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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

The Apollo program, and especially the Apollo XI first lsnding on the moon did indeed transcend national boundaries, in spite of civil unrrst and other world events. People all over the world watched with transfixed attention the landing, and those first steps and activities on the linar surface.
That coverage had a larger worldwide audience than any previous event or any other event sinve then. There was u iversal jpy and excitement about an achievement for all mankind that did indeed transcend all countries and birders.

Deborah Henderson

I just saw the movie and loved it. Could have watched it again right away. It is quite a study in what it means to be a man; particularly one at the cutting edge of American achievement (mentality). I think the acting was great, for the script was spare of words. This was a transcendent human achievement, and as such densely complex. Words can’t express it.

Critics of the movie are avoiding looking in the mirror, as usual.

Thanks for a film worth watching!

I loved apollo 13. I refused to see this because of the flag.

Boring. That was my reaction coming out of the theater. I watched the first step on the moon on TV in 1969. It was an exciting and proud moment. This movie did not capture that. This film did not convey the mood of the nation. It plodded along with the evenness of emotion that one expects from an bright and focused engineer.

Chris Bumgarner

This criticism about the flag has gone too far. What do the plaques on the LM for Apollo 11 and 17 say? They both mention “peace” and “mankind.” Read biographies of the Apollo astronauts, they all have similar sentiment as they looked upon the tiny fragile Earth from the Moon.

The criticism about the lack of US flag planting represents rising sentiments of jingoism, elitism, and supremacism in this country. Instead of promoting peace and hamanity, these rising sentiments fly in the face of what space exploration is all about.

Why do the critics hate everything that isn’t American? Why use a vehicle for peace to create petty division among ourselves? How very sad this is.

Sadly we live in polarizing times, such as the flag cpntroversy. But one should take into consideration the extremes of modern feminism (I’m sure they loved the title “First Man”). Plus younger moviegoers seem to prefer sci-fi or comic book heroes instead of NASA astronauts. And we musn’t deny those who still think Apollo 11 was a hoax have jumped upon this movie !s ‘proof’ of faking stuff. Personally, it was lousy timing since 2019 is the 50th anniversary. I wonder if “The Challenger” will now be made?

This planting flag omission is a red herring. The average person both in the US and elsewhere in the World just don’t care about matters to do with space. Having viewed the film and loving it, I must admit I wonder if people have talked about how realistic and down right scary some of the scenes are, like in the X15 and Gemini 8/Agena spin and so people have elected not to see the movie accordingly. Let’s face it, to have gone through that stuff, those guys were nuts.

First Man is a spectacular retelling of the race to the moon. Only time will tell if it outlasts Venom and Halloween. I believe the cream always rises to the top. First man is the best picture I’ve seen in years.

The planting of the US flag was not only symbolic but a sign of victory over the USSR in the space race!!! – Why not acknowledge the fact???

An excellent film. I think the release timing was a little off,,perhaps spring of 2019 would have been better…On the flag, it is shown on the spacesuits, on the Saturn V at launch, it is not hidden…These troubled times we live in have made segments of the population sensitive to some issues, and I think there has been a failure of the education system to teach the importance of our achievements, concentrating instead on the negative….

It is not polarizing times but anti-US sentiment refusing to acknowledge the huge benefit that the American experience has and continues to provide for the entire world.

Say what you will. The flag issue was a deliberate omission from the Hollywood elites that want to spin everything to their anti-American point of view since the Queen Bee Hillary got buried in the election. I will not see this movie nor will my children. It’s a shame because we love these type of films.

refuse to pay for not showing American Flag.

Having served in the military and grown up wishing to be an astronaut, I had looked forward to the release of this movie. However, upon learning of the intentional decision to rewrite history and exclude the placement of the flag on the moon in keeping with modern anti-US progressivism, I changed my mind. This is the only reason I will never watch this film.

I love historical movies and space movies. I have skipped this movie due to the flag issue. I am male over 45 and was very interested prior to flag issue. I go to space museums around the country and followed the movies development. I think they missed out on a demographic.

I can speak for at least 5 members of my immediate family who were excited over the film, but were very frustrated seeing how the studio and film makers responded to those who voiced concern that the flag plant didn’t have more focus and was treated as just a part of the environment around Neil. Leaving aside feelings about that, it just seemed like bad Hollywood to miss an opportunity to highlight a purely universally lauded American achievement, with camera, score, and acting. The flag represented a historic moment for all mankind, but Neil, the program, the creators, astronauts, tax payers, planners, were purely American. We chose not to see it, as it became clear the makers were defending the lack of focus, scrambling to assert the flag was around, and a focus on Neil the man was the reason for the lack of a special scene of the flag. Summing up, I know for a fact that tickets that were 100% going to be sold, were in fact NOT due to the studio and director treatment of the flag in film, and story once out.

I just don’t understand the fuss. The race to the moon was capped by very generous statements including all mankind in the achievement – it’s always been a very big-hearted thing for Americans to do. HOWEVER, it’s certainly not like omitting the flag would make audiences any less aware that this was REALLY an American achievement. It was significantly boosted by German research and expertise, but no other country would have had the resources, perseverance and determination to make it happen (then or now). No one out there is under any illusions that this was anything but a singular American achievement. The Apollo program and the moon-landings are one of the things that are so admirable about the USA.

Filmmakers have to make creative calls when shooting a movie – for all sorts of reasons. The flag planting has been shown and recreated and freeze-framed countless times… It’s been on magazine covers, textbooks and websites for decades. Perhaps they decided to avoid the visual cliché and try a different approach. It’s not a conspiracy. They’re not trying to re-write history. You just don’t need to show a flag to prove what everyone on the planet knows already.

Boycotting a movie because of this just feels petty.

So many comments mentioning the (missing) flag-planting scene indicate its symbolic importance. I don’t identify with those who feel compelled to burn it or trample it, yet I respect their right to express themselves. But there’s a flip side to that–I reserve the right to honor the flag, and would have been pleased had this fine movie included the iconic scene of its planting on the moon. That’s not a trivial detail to be overlooked on creative grounds, or sacrificed in order to avoid giving offense. It’s a glaring omission that detracts from the essence of the film, and I don’t see how it makes humanity in the broader sense the better for it. Great film, notwithstanding!

My family goes to the movies every few weeks. Was excited to see this as was my wife and son. We all love history. However, we opted to see Venom due precisely because of the decision to exclude the historic flag plant. Shame on Hollywood.

Maybe you can’t poll? But the deliberate exclusion of the flag disgusted me. At that point, I had NO interest in seeing this movie. Glad it flopped.

Perhaps it’s not so much about NOT actually showing planting the flag (after all, as this article Eric Berger at Ars make clear the US flag IS shown on the equipment and stuff) but rather how the entire nationalistic aspect of the moon landing was totally downplayed by the movie as well as the RESPONSE of the movie’s producers to those upset about the lack of the flag planting. Now, admittedly, they didn’t do the ‘in’ thing these days and insult large parts of their potential audience by calling them racists or sexists, but they still seemed a bit dismissive. Anyway, I’ll pick this up on video or maybe rent it from Redbox. They lost my theater money when they decided to be dismissive about leaving out a very large and important part of the reason we went to the moon, plus I hear the movie is not as ‘action oriented’ as perhaps the trailer makes it out to be.

For those that chose to not see First Man because it did not include a reenactment of the flag planting, that is your right. I believe that you denied yourself the opportunity to see a truly great film that provided new insights into the life of the first human to set foot on the moon. This film was not intended to be an Apollo 11 documentary or a “feel good” opportunity for Americans to relive past glory. Although the flag planting is not directly shown in the film, there is no effort to erase the flag from this movie or imply that it was not an American achievement. The flag and NASA emblem are very visible throughout the film. This film was about Neil Armstrong, who just happened to be the first person to walk on the moon. The real question to ask regarding whether the flag planting should or should not have been included in the film is: “did Neil believe that the flag planting itself was among the most important things in his life?” This movie is about him. Neil was a humble, private man that avoided the spotlight generated by his achievement. To emphasize the nationalistic aspects of Apollo 11 would not have been true to the perspective from which this story is told – Neil’s.

Well is sure looks like that.

I grew up a huge fan of movies like “The Right Stuff”, I can almost quote it verbatim. I had my whole family stoked to see First Man when the trailers dropped. And then the flag controversy hit. My parents who remember the Apollo missions said “No, not interested” and soon what was a family event turned into no one going. Shame really, but there you go.

The singularity of the flag planting was the most historic act and finalized accomplishment the country and the hundreds of thousands who worked tirelessly to achieve that pinnacle wanted to see. Everyone held their breath a second time as it took place, not because we are human, but because we are American.

Two of my sons, my wife and I just returned from seeing this at an I-Max theater. I knew ahead of time that the flag planting was a controversy. There was a scene which showed the flag planted next to the lunar lander. I had tears when the film included the famous JF Kennedy speech. The whole movie made me proud of America and it was a triumph for all of mankind. We need some optimism back and stop this unnecessary bickering. I hope the movie is financially successful because there aren’t many decent movies made anymore. I can’t wait to see this again, it brought back memories from childhood about the space program. I remember my mother listening to the radio and being very concerned when the Gemini 11 started spinning. I didn’t know until today that Neil Armstrong was the pilot. Go see this great movie while it is in theaters; the sound and cinematography alone is worth the admission price.

Fantastic personal story about the most dangerous, courageous responsibilities undertaken by our astronauts as embodied by Neil Armstrong, set against a canvas larger than our world, and certainly larger than a flag planting…the flag is a gorgeous literal backdrop to this nan’s personal journey…revisit the scene. Sound design was riveting…you feel like you are in the capsules with Armstrong, and often in his heart. He was an interior man but did this among other reasons, for his country. I am sad for those who cannot see America’s glory in this engineer. Like the canvas of this film, we all need to expand our boundaries.

I’m skipping it even though I would like to see it and probably enjoy it. The Hollywood left made a bad decision as it generally does. It can be a human achievement and also an American one at the same time. Making an effort to not include what is an icon of America (ie flag on the moon) is just over the top for most of us, particularly when they are generally unpatriotic. Couple that with attempting to make a profit… nah, I’ll pass.

If you understood anything about historical facts back in the 60th’s planting the American Flag was the most important part of the landing. It was a different time when all Americans were very Patriotic and very Pro American. Unlike the times we are now in we down playing our patriotism because Hollywood is of a Liberal Progressive state of mine. Bad mistake trying to please the world and not this country. Now you are paying the price of low turnout.

Everyone in my family didn’t see the movie based on not showing the flag being planted. How can you make a movie about going to the moon and not ahow that? Additionally, the mankind vs American achievememt comment by Gosling sealed the deal. This coming from a Canadian actor. Somehow today it is ok to be Anti-American yet live in America. The US was in a race war to get to space and the moon. Putting the flag in the ground was a statement. I am glad this movie didn’t do well. There is your answer to a poll from a person who refused to see Hollywood push their Anti-American agenda. Fyi – Gosling is not a great actor. He never shows any kind of emotion – just a blank face.

Having waited before making a comment., here I go. If the movie was intended to be historical the flag should have been plant d and shown. If the movie was indeed trying to make a “we are the world” moment, no. If no, the movie ceased to be historical. Now only was fact jettisoned, so was the context of the time. The Director made a decision, the investors paid the price. Censorship of yesterday for the sake of agenda today. Sounds like something the “Right” would do. Instead the “Lefties” tried to pull a fast one.

Anthony Giarrusso

It’s not just the planting of the flag. They time and again remove American Flags from Flight Suits and Aircraft. No Stars and Stripes on the X-15, that, in reality, was there. There clearly was a concerted effort to NOT SHOW THE AMERICAN FLAG.

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