The battle over “First Man,” the movie biopic of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, has raged ever since it first screened at the Venice Film Festival in August. Now, actual audiences have weighed in, and the verdict is rather bleak.

In the first weekend, the much-discussed, much-ballyhooed space movie made just $16.5 million at the box office and was third overall, behind the second weekends of “Venom,” a Marvel Comics superhero movie, and yet another remake of “A Star is Born.” The poor box office occurred despite the fact that the reviews were, with certain exceptions, pretty favorable.

The prospect of “First Man” becoming profitable, with an almost $60 million production budget, plus marketing costs to overcome, has become problematic at best.

The flag flap

How did the filmmakers create what appears, at least for now, to be a flop of a story about the moon landing? It was the greatest event of the 20th century, if not of all time. One would expect audiences to be eager to see the movie. The only answer that comes to my mind is the flag flap. The omission of a scene, depicting the raising of the American flag on the lunar surface, created a firestorm of criticism. The ham-handed attempts to answer the criticism, especially by the film’s star, Ryan Gosling, dug the hole deeper.

“First Man” just could not shake off the stench of the implied attack on American exceptionalism, despite all the denials and even a trailer replete with American flags.

Bad reviews

One exception to the glowing reviews was written by Armond White of the National Review. White found the movie to be a full-throated assault on American exceptionalism and achievement.

He also was unimpressed by the Neil Armstrong character, who was depicted as emotionally repressed, and the Jan Armstrong character, a misogynist caricature of a complaining, shrewish wife. John Podhoretz, writing for the Weekly Standard, had similar sentiments. He ended his review by stating, “I can’t tell you how much I hated 'First Man'.”

Curiously, Richard Brody at the New Yorker found “First Man” to be a right-wing propaganda, despite the fact that he saw the same film as Armond White and John Podhoretz.

'Apollo 13' was a better space movie

In order to realize how badly “First Man” has been received, we only have to compare it to 1995’s “Apollo 13” directed by Ron Howard and staring the incomparable Tom Hanks. During its opening weekend in wide release, it made over $25 million, which would be over $41 million in 2018 dollars. The depiction of the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 became a box office smash.

Anyone who has seen both Movies will easily see why. “Apollo 13” was an unapologetic celebration of the moon landings. It started with the tragedy of the Apollo fire and continued with a long sequence of many of the cast watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on TV before getting to the main story about the efforts to bring the crew of Apollo 13 home after a near disaster in space.

The film was unabashedly positive about America’s capacity to achieve great things.

Whitey on the Moon

By contrast, while “First Man” left out the raising of the American flag at Tranquility Base, it did include, in its soundtrack, “Whitey on the Moon,” a racist screed that protested the moon landing composed by the overrated musician and poet Gil-Scott Heron. The message, despite the denials to the contrary, could not have been clearer.

International audiences were not impressed

The studio that produced “First Man” had hoped that international audiences, less sensitive to slights against American achievement, would be more favorable to the movie. The film might limp along enough to get a boost during the movie awards season.

One of the criticisms of “First Man” was that it was made almost entirely by non-Americans, who would be expected to not appreciate the awesome regard Americans have for the Apollo moon landings. However, as a little-known, but wonderful Australian film called, “The Dish,” proved, some foreigners do understand how utterly triumphant and wonderful the race to the moon really was. Watching the movie, which starred Sam Neill, along with “Apollo 13,” should prove to be a cure for the disappointment “First Man” seems to have caused.