“It’s a movie about the greatest human achievement in the history of mankind, so why did it take them 50 years to make it?”
That’s the question posed to me by Bart Sibrel, the Nashville-born filmmaker and writer who is probably most famous for being punched in the face by astronaut Buzz Aldrin at a Beverly Hills hotel. Sibrel’s bete noir is disproving that the moon landing ever happened, and while there’s overwhelming evidence that mankind made the leap in 1969, he’s not alone — moon landing conspiracy theories having been percolating since the mid-1970s. So how is this dedicated group handling the release of the Ryan Gosling-starring First Man, which triumphantly cements the story of the Apollo 11 mission in Oscar-ready packaging? The short answer is: not well.
The “moon landing hoax” theory posits that the United States, desperate to score a propaganda victory over the Soviet Union in the Space Race, set up a film studio and created bogus footage of Armstrong and Aldrin taking that giant leap for mankind. It’s a surprisingly pervasive belief, despite even the Mythbusters devoting time to debunking the conspiracy, with polls indicating as many as 20 percent of Americans doubt that man ever walked on the moon.
In 1976, technical writer Bill Kaysing published We Never Went To The Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle, a seminal text for the moon landing hoax movement. Just five years after the Apollo 11 mission, Kaysing — who worked at the rocket engine company Rocketdyne during the Saturn missions — claimed that he was privy to secret documents stating that NASA simply didn’t have the technology to get astronauts back from the moon alive. Since then, he’s claimed that the U.S. government has murdered multiple people (including staging the Challenger space shuttle explosion) in order to keep the truth from coming out.
“You say science is all about independent verification,” Bart Sibrel tells me over the phone, “but there has never been independent verification or duplication of the moon landing.” Well, sort of — there were five other manned landings between 1969 and 1972, and numerous unmanned landings since then, as well as an unmanned probe to Mars. But it’s curious to him that we put so much work into the act of moving human beings to the Moon and simply stopped doing it a few years later.
Sibrel sent me one of his articles that lays out his main complaints. Essentially, he argues that we’ve put men in Earth orbit (the International Space Station is real, for example), but the Moon is and has always been beyond our reach. But the myth of the Moon Landing — arguably one of the greatest human accomplishments ever, emphasized by First Man — is too important to our national mental health to ever dispel.
First Man taps into a major element of the moon landing conspiracy: the Tinseltown connection. Visitors to Los Angeles, California may have noticed that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins have commemorative plaques on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honor usually reserved for entertainers. One popular theory as to why is that the director of the fraudulent moon films was none other than Stanley Kubrick, approached by NASA in 1968 in the wake of 2001 to bring his sci-fi vision to the small screen, and the “Apollo 11 astronauts” were his actors.
Sibrel claims, without citing any direct evidence, that knowledge of the conspiracy goes all the way to the top.
“I know personally that Trump knows the moon landings are fake and he’s biding his time to reveal it at the end of this term, or at the end of his second term if he’s re-elected … It’s the only positive conspiracy that they have. This is taking candy away from a baby. It’s telling you that your team that won the Super Bowl won by cheating. If the truth comes out, it will destroy the hearts of Americans. That’s why they’re so concerned about it.”
Moon landing conspiracies go hand in hand with another bizarre belief: Flat Earth theory. Those invested believe that the Earth is a disc-shaped structure floating in space, ringed by an impassable wall of ice around the edge. As for the moon, there are numerous theories; the official Flat Earth Society webpage states that it’s a small ball, 32 miles in diameter, floating around 3000 miles over the surface of the Earth — or about the distance from New York to Los Angeles. Other believers think it’s a projection, or another flat object. One thing they all agree on is that we never went there.
The “Official Flat Earth & Globe” Facebook discussion group has dozens of threads on First Man. One member, Mark Thibodeaux, posted “I’m going to see the movie first man and Imma be the rudest movie patron in history,” following it up by laying out his intentions to loudly scoff and call BS on the “history” being depicted on-screen.
Sibrel, on the other hand, won’t be seeing First Man. “I’m a filmmaker and I try not to be influenced by other people’s works so I generally don’t watch other people’s movies. I write a lot but I very seldom read other people’s material because I don’t want to be influenced by it.”
Pete Svarrior, who handles press inquiries for the Flat Earth Society, is undecided. “I haven’t made plans for it, but I’m not actively avoiding it or anything of the sort. The movie industry is not willing to support films which accurately portray these alternative views. Anything big enough to have a high production value is usually based on misconceptions, or downright disinformation.”
Jarrah White, a prominent moon landing truther and director of the MoonFaker series, saw the movie soon after it opened in his native Australia. When I ask White what he thought of the film, he emails me a little under 3,000 words of deconstruction. White says he found the early Gemini launches to be visceral and engaging, but in general First Man reinforced his disbelief of the facts in a number of different ways. “The film quickly goes downhill when it comes to Apollo — and that’s not my doubt in the Moon missions talking!”
In his e-mail, White cites how the second half of film glosses over sections of Apollo mission history, underserves depictions of real life events, like the Apollo 1 fire, and delivers minimal moon-walking footage one might compare to NASA stock footage. He was genuinely pleased with the depiction of the Gemini missions. “I don’t doubt that Apollo 11 made Earth orbit, what I doubt is that it went to the Moon.”
All in all, there was only one major surprise. According to White, the shots of Armstrong and Aldrin wandering around on the lunar surface saw the dark sides of their spacesuits shrouded in shadow. The lighting — routinely debated by hoaxers and debunked by photographers — struck him as a fascinating choice.
“This is exactly how the astronauts and all shaded surfaces should have appeared on the Moon,” he writes. “The astronauts brought no additional lighting with them, and the lunar surface only reflects about 7% of the light that hits it. It’s about as reflective as an asphalt road! Yet the Hasselblad images from Apollo typically show the astronauts brilliantly lit up on the shaded side.”
White wonders why the filmmakers would bother illustrating this concept. “It’s almost like they took lunar accuracy all the way even if it conflicted with NASA’s photographic record.”
The conspiracies have even reached First Man director Damien Chazelle. In an interview with GQ, he talks about the difficulty of filming a fictionalized version of events and how much harder it would have been a half-century ago:
“I mean, I remember our crew and I would look at each other: ‘If it’s this hard to literally recreate, like, a ﬁve-minute version of this event 50 years later… To re-create a live stream, basically, of hours of this event in 1969?’ I’m of the mind-set it would’ve been harder to fake this than to actually do it.”
That obviously hasn’t deterred the true believers, who consider First Man just another brick in the massive edifice of misinformation that’s been erected to cover up a hoax over the last half-century. Flat Earther Jason Youngblood sums it up on Facebook:
“Now, with the flat Earth truth movement in full swing, they FINALLY decide to release this beautiful piece of space propaganda. I especially enjoyed all of the footage of the Actornots inside the space capsule preparing for launch. It’s funny how, in a day where practically EVERYTHING is recorded, there’s never been ANY such footage released to the public. It looks like the ‘powers that shouldn’t be’ are finally starting to get a little worried.”