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A spirit that is not afraid

'First Man' author, Auburn professor speaks on controversy surrounding upcoming film

Contributed by James R. Hansen
Contributed by James R. Hansen


Throughout all his success, James R. Hansen hopes that he has made his students from the past 31 years proud with his newest venture, the upcoming film “First Man.”

Hansen, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University, is the author of the only official biography of Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, and a co-producer and co-director for the upcoming film adaption of the book, both titled, “First Man.”

Hansen worked alongside director Damien Chazelle and actor Ryan Gosling on the project, where he gained immense respect for both men, he said.

Recent controversy has surrounded the film as some have accused the movie of not being patriotic enough. People have spoken out about their discontent with this, including President Donald Trump announcing that he will not be viewing it due to the omission of the iconic flag-planting moment into the lunar surface.

However, if American patriotism symbolized by the flag is what people are concerned about, Hansen promises there are more moments throughout the film that represent American pride.

“The movie is very intimately American,” Hansen said. “That’s why the controversy is unfortunate and frustrating for us involved because we know the movie. It’s got Americana written all over it.”

Hansen understands why people could receive word of the omission and think it is odd, but he said there was a lot of thought put into that decision. When viewers see the movie, they will understand the decision, Hansen said. 

“I lived and breathed the production of this movie, and I understand why (it was omitted),” Hansen said. “But people just hear this one thing, and they don’t understand why it was done the way it was done and how other elements of the movie are unbelievably patriotic and American.”

The flag, however, is shown on the lunar surface in incredible ways in the film, according to Hansen, just without the scene of it physically being planted.

“It was really in the hands of the director, Damien Chazelle,” Hansen said. “We’ve got this storyline, and a lot of it is Neil’s story. It’s really a grief story.”

The movie begins with the death of Armstrong’s young daughter Karen, and the rest of the movie focuses on the Armstrong family’s healing from that loss.

“[The movie] not only needs to finish the journey to the moon, but it needs to finish the grief journey, too,” Hansen said. “We had to finish the grief journey for [Neil].”

Hansen admits that maybe the production team should have realized the possibility of the negative reaction on the omission of the American flag planting, but they were focused on Neil’s story, not just the Apollo 11 story.

“It’s just a reflection of our time as these things become politicized,” he said. “There was a strong comment from Mark Armstrong, the younger of the two sons, who thinks that with this controversy that Neil would be very bothered by it, sullying the promise of this new film.”

When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, the American astronauts brought an American flag, a plaque saying that the men came in peace for all mankind on the Lunar Module and a silicon chip with goodwill messages from over 70 world leaders of the time microscopically engraved on it. 

Hansen thinks it is important to notice production omitted the placement of it all, not just the planting of the American flag. 

Even though it was an American achievement, the American government mandated those items for the exploration to symbolize the feat for all men and women. 

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“What did Neil say when he stepped on the surface?” Hansen asked, hoping people would remember those historic words. “He didn’t say one giant leap for us Americans.”

Hansen said, while it is important to remember that the moon landing was an American achievement, the rest of the world was just as excited to see men on the moon. 

Most importantly, though, Hansen owed it to Armstrong to continue to protect his story and uphold his legacy.

As he was heavily involved with production, Chazelle and Gosling told Hansen to speak to them first about any directorial advice that he had at an appropriate time between scenes. 

Hansen did not have much to say as both men were masters of their craft, but there were a few moments where he felt the need to speak up in order to honor Armstrong’s personality.

In one undisclosed scene, Hansen felt odd about the way a line was done, and Gosling asked him to sit with him at lunch while on a break and talked to him about that moment. Hansen voiced his reservations on the line and direction, only in regards to how Armstrong was being embodied, as he did not think Armstrong would have said something in the way it was portrayed. 

“Ryan took the time to explain his approach to creating a character, and there was something about the way he was speaking to me, very respectfully and really listening to what I had to say and being rather minimalist in the way he was saying things that I almost thought I was talking to Neil,” Hansen said. “I had kind of a shiver go down my spine because I really felt this guy was the right one to do it and that he was going to really bring Neil.”

To Hansen, Gosling embodied Armstrong with an interpretation that was the true essence of the astronaut. 

Though he wrote Armstrong’s biography as a colleague, Hansen said that he became a dear friend to him. He said he feels a responsibility to continue to uphold Armstrong’s legacy. 

In 1999, Hansen was one of many authors and historians that were reaching out to Armstrong to write his biography. Everyone was refused the job, but Hansen sent Armstrong a birthday gift not long after he received the ‘no.’ 

“I knew I couldn’t pester him,” Hansen said. “I sent him this birthday gift with some of my books. I was basically thinking, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be cool to know that my books were on the bookshelf of Neil Armstrong?’”

After receiving that gift, Armstrong changed his mind about Hansen and granted him the rights to his story. The process was not easy, and it took a few years to complete. At the end, Hansen had 55 hours of audio recordings of interviews with Armstrong.

Hansen wanted to make Armstrong proud, as it was an honor to be the one to write the astronaut’s story. 

“[Armstrong] only gave me one compliment on the book and that was, ‘Jim, you wrote exactly the kind of book you told me you were going to write,’” Hansen said. “To write the book in such an honest way in the exact way I told him I was going to, it was such a compliment for me.”

To his excitement, everyone involved within the book, like Armstrong’s ex-wife, second wife and sons, approved of the it after its release in 2005. 

The two men remained friends throughout the rest of Armstrong’s life, exchanging phone calls and emails as well as seeing each other at events they were both invited to.

Hansen commends Armstrong in the way he never influenced Hansen’s writing of the book. He never had anything to say about it, just answered the questions Hansen asked. 

Though some might think that the film’s interpretation might be wrong, there was a lot of research that went into it.

“Gosling had a lot to do with that, too,” Hansen said.

Hansen’s book inspired the final script by Josh Singer, writer of “Spotlight.” Hansen was sent Singer’s scripts every time they were revised.

“I sent him 70 single-spaced pages of comments,” Hansen said, after receiving only the first 100-page preliminary outline of the script. “I had no veto power, but I had my powers of persuasion.”

Singer told Hansen that he had a good batting average when it came to script revision advice. Though he was new to the politics of the film industry, Hansen has a much better understanding and appreciation for movie production now.

“Cinema is an art form,” he said.

He credits Gosling for helping him really see that with acting after he spoke with him on his interpretation of Armstrong.

Since the anticipation and Oscar buzz of “First Man,” Hansen’s book has had a rebirth, being translated into 24 more languages by the end of the year, as well as getting new art for the cover commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. 

“It’s really thrilling to know that you’ve written something that’s going to reach that kind of international audience,” Hansen said. “But also, this book would not be translated into so many languages if it wasn’t such a universal story. Everybody felt they had a part of this.”

His pride for his work relates into the pride for the international moment that was Armstrong’s first steps onto the moon’s surface.

“Yes, it’s an American achievement, but if it was just an American achievement, if people didn’t identify with it worldwide, you wouldn’t have 24 countries publishing it,” he said.

Hansen said he’ll never forget Auburn and his 31 years at the University through all of his success.

“As proud of Auburn is of me, I’m more proud of Auburn,” he said. “I hope my students over 31 years know that they’re part of this book, and I hope nothing that has been written about it or said about it so far makes them less proud of it.”

The film will be released on Oct. 12, 2018.

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