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‘First Man’ scribe Josh Singer waves off the movie’s flag controversy

The moon landing movie 'First Man' doesn't show astronaut Neil Armstrong planting the American flag. The screenwriter explains why.

Lukas Haas, Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll in the film 'First Man.'
Lukas Haas, Ryan Gosling and Corey Stoll in the film 'First Man.'Read moreDaniel McFadden

If your daily outrage calendar is out of date, you perhaps missed the dust-up surrounding First Man, which shows the moon landing but does not show astronaut Neil Armstrong actually planting the American flag.

This is cited in some circles as evidence of a Hollywood left coast deficit of patriotism, but the writer — Josh Singer — doesn't come off as a Tinseltown type.

He's from Upper Dublin (that hotbed of anti-Americanism), and he went to high school there before embarking on a career as a screenwriter (The Post, Spotlight), and he still sounds very much like a Philadelphian — when I got him on the phone, the first thing he said was how excited he was that Sixer Markelle Fultz had, the night before, made his first three-point shot of the preseason.

So he doesn't sound like a radical. He did readily concede, though, that he and First Man director Damien Chazelle — whose roots include the similarly anti-American hotbeds of Haverford and Princeton — were trying to do something radically new with First Man. And though they expected it to be provocative, they didn't expect the movie to provoke  allegations of anti-Americanism.

"We were taking a look at an icon, Neil Armstrong, who is known to a generation of people in a very particular way. And although we were super-careful with the historical record, we knew we were saying provocative things about this towering figure in American history," said Singer.

A consistent theme in the movie is how much hardship Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling, who also starred in Chazelle's La La Land) endured in the years leading up to the 1969 mission. Foremost, the loss of a daughter at just 2 years old due to complications from cancer, and then the loss of fellow test pilots and astronauts to accidents. (Apollo program colleagues Elliot See and Ed White were close friends;  White was a next-door neighbor).

Armstrong presented a famously stoic persona to the American public, but the movie shows him exhibiting the full range of emotions that arise from such tragedies.

"I've had people say, 'When I saw Neil cry at the loss of his daughter, I had to rethink how I looked him.' That struck me as odd, but I get it — that's not how people think about Neil," Singer said.

His goal working with Chazelle was to take an honest look at the considerable human attrition behind the first successful moon mission,  not to detract from the polish of NASA's reputation, but to take the proper measure of just how bold a figure Armstrong really was. How much risk he (and others) took, and how much he had to overcome. Much of it is unknown to the public, because Armstrong wanted it that way.

"Neil would never have called himself a hero. He genuinely didn't think of himself that way," said Singer, who noted that Armstrong consistently deflected attention and instead praised the thousands of "men and women who worked on the mission. He was the tip of a very long spear."

About that controversial moon sequence — the full two hours leading up to it are about Armstrong's personal trials: his near-death experiences in Gemini missions and testing the landing craft with a simulator, and how all of that affected his home life (his wife, Janey, is played by The Crown's Claire Foy). What happens on the moon is seen through that filter.

"I was intensely focused on Neil, the person, in these scenes," said Singer, noting that Armstrong's point of view dominates the frame. We are inside Armstrong's helmet, looking down at his own foot, for instance, as he makes that famous first step.

"We don't show lots of things that happened. We don't show the Nixon call, the science experiments. There's very little of the rock collecting. Most of what we show on the moon is Neil's first-person perspective. We were trying to show what was in his head," Singer said.

That internal drama, by the way, is the key to the entire sequence, and to the movie's emotional wallop, about which the less said the better.

Suffice it to say, much of the movie comes down to Singer — working with authorized Armstrong biographer Jim Hansen — making a guess about what Armstrong did when he went very atypically off-script for just a few minutes and wandered off to "Little West Crater" for a few  moments alone.

What did he do there? What items might he have left? Mementos and memorials were a tradition with astronauts — also not mentioned in the movie, the placing of tributes left to Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts who perished in missions to space.

Armstrong, Singer notes, was permitted a PPK (personal property kit) on the trip, but when he was later asked about its contents, he claimed he couldn't say because he had lost the manifest.

"If you know Neil, you know that [losing a manifest] doesn't really sound like him. It's unlikely at best," said Singer, who spent four years researching the script, working with Hansen, talking to other astronauts and members of Armstrong's family, who have strongly endorsed the movie and its conjecture about Armstrong's mystery minutes on the moon.

"I think when people go see the movie they'll see, I hope, two things. That it celebrates the ordinary American family, because that's what Janet and Neil were, in many ways. They were people just trying to survive through all of this. Also, I think [viewers] will see that the American flag is all over the movie, and they'll understand what we were trying to do on the moon, which is to get at what was going on in Neil's head, instead of every detail of what he was doing."

Singer found Armstrong tremendously inspiring and hopes he was able to channel that into the script.

"One of the things we show is how difficult it is to achieve greatness. The sacrifice that is involved, how much we need to give of ourselves," he said. "Neil was a leader. And this is what leadership looks like."