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  • Universal Pictures The Gemini VIII mission with fellow astronaut Dave Scott was Neil Armstrong's only other trip to space. Ryan Gosling re-creates those flights in Damien Chazelle's new film, “First Man.”

  • Universal Pictures “First Man” chronicles the decade that culminated with the moon landing. Here, Gosling as Armstrong walks away from the crash of his lunar lander simulator at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston in May 1968.

  • File Clad in his spacesuit and what was known as the "Snoopy" cap, Neil Armstrong smiles in the safety of the lunar module Eagle after his July 20, 1969, moonwalk. 

  • File James R. Hansen’s biography of Neil Armstrong, “First Man,” will debut in film form on Friday.

  • Photo courtesy James R. Hansen “First Man” author James R. Hansen poses with the actors who portrayed the Apollo 11 crew: from left, Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, Corey Stoll as Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Lukas Haas as Michael Collins. 

  • Universal Pictures “First Man” focuses on Armstrong’s private life as well as his historic accomplishments.

Sunday, October 07, 2018 1:00 am

'Man' of the moment

Elmhurst graduate's Armstrong biography makes it to big screen

KEITH ELCHERT | The Journal Gazette

Up next for the author

James R. Hansen's next project also has a decidedly Neil Armstrong focus. The lunar pioneer's post-NASA career included time as a professor at the University of Cincinnati and as a member of the commission that investigated the 1986 post-liftoff explosion that killed seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

Purdue University, where Armstrong earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1955, is the repository of many of his papers and personal effects. Among the items are artifacts of Armstrong's Gemini VIII and Apollo 11 space missions: maps, checklists, space food and motion sickness medicine.

The trove also includes between 70,000 and 85,000 pages of personal correspondence, much of it fan mail that continued to arrive for decades after Armstrong's 1969 achievement. Hansen's new assignment is to sift through the correspondence for a Purdue Press book (or two) on the letters.

– Keith Elchert

James R. Hansen apologizes for being a few minutes late, though he can hardly be blamed. Mechanical issues with the plane and lost luggage delayed his return home to Auburn, Alabama, from a weekend appearance at Florida's Cape Canaveral.

The Fort Wayne native and Auburn University history professor has been much in demand of late; the Universal Pictures film based on his 2005 book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” debuts Friday. The Kennedy Space Center event began with a screening of the highly anticipated film; that was followed by two days of availability for domestic then international media outlets. Another screening, for an audience peppered with congressional representatives and Cabinet members, took place Thursday in Washington, D.C.

Hansen's authorized biography of the first man to set foot on the moon was shaped by more than 50 hours of interviews with Armstrong, combined with virtually unlimited access to the astronaut's colleagues, friends and memorabilia. (While the book was authorized, its subject had no control over Hansen's portrayal and analysis of him.) Hansen's background as an author well versed in the technical aspects of spaceflight piqued Armstrong's interest after he demurred on Hansen's initial pitch in 2000.

The two, who crafted their book deal without the aid of lawyers in 2002, developed a friendship that lasted the remainder of Armstrong's life (he died in August 2012 at age 82). Hansen believes their shared Midwestern roots were vital to the connection. Hansen graduated from Elmhurst High School (1970) and IPFW (1974) before moving on to Ohio State University.

“The road (U.S. 33) you take from Fort Wayne to Columbus, Ohio, which is where I went to graduate school, goes right through (Armstrong's birthplace of) Wapakoneta, Ohio,” Hansen told a Journal Gazette interviewer in 2012.

During a phone interview last week, Hansen, 66, said “First Man” drew “interest from Hollywood even before I started the book.” Clint Eastwood was first to option the film rights. Hansen, Armstrong and their wives had a Hollywood meeting with the film giant, but Eastwood let his option pass. Hansen said he heard Eastwood believed bringing the story to the screen would involve “too much heavy lifting.”

Damien Chazelle, Oscar-winning director of 2017's “La La Land,” “latched on (to 'First Man') as soon as he heard about it,” Hansen said. So did Chazelle's “La La Land” star Ryan Gosling, who signed on to play Armstrong.

“It usually takes a director and lead actor to show real interest” for a project to receive the go-ahead, said Hansen, who received a co-producer credit for the movie version of his book. Top listed among three executive producers of “First Man” is Steven Spielberg.

Hansen has high praise for Gosling and his portrayal of the man Hansen came to know in Armstrong. “I can't think of another actor who could do it better than Ryan,” he said in a Universal interview. “Ryan has some of the same introspective, cerebral, quiet, modest qualities that Neil had.

“But at the same time, he is a brilliant actor who can also take the Armstrong character and – through his own understanding of who Neil was – bring out elements of Neil that we might not have seen unless you were really close to him.

“Ryan met Neil's sister June after I explained how important she was to my understanding of Neil's character ...,” Hansen added. “Ryan sat in the same farmhouse that I interviewed Neil in and spoke to June and with one of Neil's boyhood friends. He listened to stories, asked questions and has met Neil's sons, along with other family members. He has fully immersed himself in this role. He's certainly done his homework ...”

The screenplay is the product of an Oscar winner as well – Josh Singer won for 2015's “Spotlight.” (Hansen also receives a writing credit for “based on the book by.”)

Hansen reports he and Singer are “good friends now,” though their relationship got off to a somewhat rocky start.

Asked to review Singer's first draft of the “First Man” screenplay (which focuses on the decade leading up to the Apollo 11 mission), Hansen responded with 70 single-spaced pages of proposed revisions. He describes the episode as a learning experience in the transition from academia and authorship to filmmaking.

“I was on set almost every day,” Hansen says. “The politics and hierarchy of a movie set were things I had to learn.

“It was a little tricky at times,” he adds. “I didn't want to alienate anyone or push too hard one way or the other.”

Of the finished product, Hansen says: “I couldn't be more proud,” especially as the 50th anniversary of the first lunar landing on July 20, 1969, looms next summer. (Another, more immediate anniversary saw NASA celebrate its 60th on Monday.)

Hansen addressed head on an issue that has dogged “First Man” in recent weeks: the “flag flap.”

The controversy first flared over Labor Day weekend when critics pointed out that “First Man” does not contain a scene of Armstrong and crewmate Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planting the American flag on the lunar surface. (For comparison, the flag-planting takes up about a page – 503 to 504 – of Hansen's 648-page biography.)

Gosling added to the dust-up with a comment that the scene wasn't included because “First Man” chooses to cast the moon landing both as an American achievement and a “human achievement.”

Hansen points out that the American flag “abounds” throughout the film.

“Go see the movie and you'll see for yourself,” he says. “I can't think of a more patriotic film in the last few years.”

Hansen also believes Gosling and “First Man” do well at capturing Armstrong's modest nature – sometimes misinterpreted as reclusiveness or stand-offishness.

“He understood the special nature of Apollo 11,” Hansen says of Armstrong. But he also understood his “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was the product of the work of “hundreds of thousands” of people, with the “astronauts at the top of the pyramid” – and Armstrong at the point.

“There was nothing preordained about (Armstrong's) becoming commander,” his biographer adds.

Chazelle says that humility was an important consideration in the movie's portrayal of Armstrong. “Neil always insisted there was nothing special about him,” the director said in an interview put out by Universal. “He said he was just one of many, and circumstances enabled him to be the first man on the moon.”

Keith Elchert is copy editor for The Journal Gazette's editorial page.