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'First Man' flag kerfuffle is rocket fuel for our divided times

When news broke that the upcoming Hollywood film about the moon landing leaves out the planting of an American flag in lunar soil (though it apparently shows the flag later), both sides of the ideological aisle instantly weighed in, each with compelling arguments. The film in question has only been seen by a select few, meaning the truth won't be clear until its Oct. 12 release. 

That didn't stop Social Media Nation. (Does it ever?) 

The problem began when Ryan Gosling, who stars as Neil Armstrong in director Damien Chazelle's film, shared why we don't see the astronaut planting an American flag on the moon. The moment "transcended countries and borders," the actor told reporters in a pitch-perfect parody of PC speak. 

"I think this was widely regarded in the end as a human achievement [and] that's how we chose to view it," he told reporters. "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." 

That served as a starter's pistol for pundits. Conservatives railed against a Hollywood film downplaying America's monumental space victory. Progressives fought back, saying artists can tell a story any way they please, and naysayers should actually see the movie before weighing in. 

Both sides had a point. 

Modern Hollywood has a spotty track record when it comes to patriotism. During the Iraq War, the industry cranked out a bevy of films undermining the war effort and those who pulled the levers in Washington.  

The 2006 Man of Steel reboot, "Superman Returns," removed the last two words from the character's classic line, "Truth, justice and the American way." 

Is it a surprise a glossy film might downplay America's gargantuan space achievement? Could the move be tied to fears that international audiences might recoil at the patriotic showing? 

The latter drove some conservatives to distraction. Hollywood editors routinely tweak movies to appease Chinese government censors, eager to squeeze every last dollar from the international marketplace. Studios go so far as to add new footage for Chinese audiences, remove plot elements that could offend Chinese government officials, or add subplots that paint China in a positive light. 

Ben Shapiro, editor in chief of The Daily Wire, offered the most cogent conservative critique of FlagGate: "The moon landing was always nationalist. It was nationalism in service of humanity. But that's been America's role in the world for generations. Removing the American flag from an American mission demonstrates the anti-American animus of Hollywood, if we're to take their values-laden protestations seriously." 

The imbroglio also reminded conservatives how Hollywood plays fast and loose with reality to score partisan points. Take "Truth," the 2015 drama that pretended CBS News' Dan Rather didn't promote fake news to rock the 2004 presidential election. 

"First Man's" liberal defenders roared back, saying critics can't fully assess the movie until they see it in theaters. Others, like Marlow Stern of the liberal Daily Beast, saw the film and said the American flag gets its close-up in other, equally critical ways. He also attacked Sen. Marco Rubio for joining the "First Man" mob

It's a prime example of social media hot-takes lapping reality. The moment packed everything a culture warrior craves ... except the full story. 

The one person with egg on his face? Gosling. His tortured rationale for the flag-less sequence insulted a nation that sacrificed so much to make history. Not exactly the best way to promote your product stateside. That's hardly new for actors, though. They often hit the promotional circuit and end up chasing away potential viewers. 

Consider stars who say the ugliest comments about President Donald Trump while chatting with Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel. Actor Michael Shannon famously told a reporter that Trump's voters are "ready for the urn" while promoting "Nocturnal Animals" in late 2016. 

To paraphrase Michael Jordan's mythical line, Republicans buy movie tickets, too. 

Christian Bale called Moses "schizophrenic," and director Ridley Scott compared the Biblical figure to modern terrorists while promoting their spiritual epic "Exodus: Gods and Kings." The film flopped. 

Another, less discussed element of FlagGate? In recent times actors swiftly apologize for offending progressive sensibilities. Scarlett Johansson fired herself as the star of "Rub and Tug," a biopic of a trans entrepreneur, after the political left demanded a trans actor deserved the part, not her. "Our cultural understanding of transgender people continues to advance, and I've learned a lot from the community since making my first statement about my casting and realize it was insensitive," the superstar actress said in a statement. 

Amy Schumer agreed with far-left critics who said she shouldn't have starred in her own 2018 movie, "I Feel Pretty," saying a woman of color was a better choice for the role a marginalized heroine. (Schumer, a producer on the film, took the gig anyway.) 

Yet, when FlagGate broke out, the film's director and co-star, Damien Chazelle and Jason Clarke, vigorously rose to its defense. 

Ultimately, artists should stand up for their work, no matter the partisan blowback and allow their art - and movie ticket sales - to fall where they may. If only the industry's players could do just that when confronted by Chinese censors and social justice warriors.

Christian Toto is editor of the conservative entertainment site HollywoodInToto.com and host of the weekly Hollywood in Toto Podcast.

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