The first man to walk on the moon saw himself as "a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer" who happened to have a glamorous job as an astronaut. "First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong" reveals a stoic Midwesterner who avoided publicity and never sought to profit off his celebrity status.
Neil Armstrong was the rarest kind of American hero, one who had no interest in fame. The first man to walk on the moon saw himself as “a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer” who happened to have a glamorous job as an astronaut. He was a stoic Midwesterner who avoided publicity and never sought to profit off his celebrity status, but that doesn’t mean he was unaware of his achievements.
“He was proud,” said James R. Hansen, the author of “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong.” “He was proud of being the commander of the first flight to the moon. The stepping onto the lunar surface was kind of ancillary to him but he understood the symbolic importance of it and showed it by the words that he chose.”
Those words — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — are uttered late in “First Man,” the new movie starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong. It’s a fascinating look at a complicated man and a stunning technical achievement by director Damien Chazelle. It’s also what Hansen calls “a grief journey” that suggests Armstrong was forever haunted by the death of his young daughter.
“First Man” is based on Hansen’s 2005 biography. Armstrong did not like talking about himself but cooperated with Hansen and agreed to 50 hours of interviews. Ahead of an upcoming Seattle appearance, here’s what Hansen had to say about Armstrong, his book and consulting on Chazelle’s film. This interview that has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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Q: What do you think Armstrong would have thought of the movie?
A: I’m not sure he would have even gone to see it [laughs]. I had an event in San Diego after my book came out where virtually all of the surviving members of his fighter squadron attended, and Neil chose not to go. He thought it would take attention to his squadron-mates and … make him involved in the selling of the book. They couldn’t understand it and thought he was being kind of silly, and those were his friends. He could be — I don’t know what the word is — maybe “persnickety.”
Q: Which was easier, landing on the moon or getting the movie made?
A: I’d have to say that as hard as it was landing on the moon, the movie might have been harder [laughs]. It took a long time to get it made. It happened really quickly as far as Hollywood getting interested. Even better I started making much progress on the book, back in the early 2000s, the fact that Neil had agreed to do the book and give me the access made news, and Hollywood came calling in the form of Warner Bros. and Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood invited Armstrong and myself out to his private golf course in California and we met and played golf and talked about the film. After the book came out, for whatever reason Clint wasn’t interested anymore. The only thing I ever heard was he thought it would be too much heavy lifting doing the film, and now that I’ve seen it made I understand what he was talking about.
Q: What was your involvement in the movie?
A: I reviewed all of the scripts, everything from the preliminary outline to the final script, which must have gone through 50 versions. I worked closely with [screenwriter] Josh Singer from the start, and I also introduced him to a lot of people I thought he should meet and gave him lots of comments. I made a big mistake because the first draft he sent me I gave him 70 pages of single-spaced comments [laughs].
Q: And what do you think of the movie?
A: I think it’s brilliant. It’s a slice of his life — my book is the full life story and the movie is just a slice from the end of his test pilot years through Apollo. I think the movie follows my book in some essential ways. My book does a lot with the death of [Armstrong’s] daughter and the impact of that on his decision to become an astronaut. It deconstructs a lot about the space program in those years and sheds a light on the risk and the loss that was involved in getting to the moon. A lot of histories and movies sugarcoat that in a more upbeat and triumphant way.
“First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen, Simon & Schuster, 672 pp., $9.99 paperback
The author will attend a reception and give a lecture on “First Man” at the Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle, 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, $20/general, $15/member; museumofflight.org