/ 13 April 2008

Hollywood hunts star to play first man on the moon

It was one small step for man, but could be one giant leap in the career of an actor. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, is to be the subject of a Hollywood biopic. The only question now is: Who is worthy of filling the space boots of the 20th-century icon who ”came in peace for all mankind”?

Armstrong has been bafflingly neglected by a Hollywood that has eulogised every minor and major United States hero. Baffling, because Armstrong’s entire life has been the stuff of high adventure and prime Hollywood material. The son of an Ohio farmer, he became a fighter pilot in Korea and, on one occasion, lost part of an aeroplane wing over enemy territory, but still returned safely.

After joining the space programme, his Gemini 8 spacecraft began tumbling wildly out of control in 1966 and he still brought it down without mishap. As the commander of the Apollo 11 lunar module, the Eagle, he was down to about 15 seconds of fuel as it reached the moon’s surface on July 20 1969.

Brad Pitt and Viggo Mortensen were among the names being put forward on Saturday night. Tom Hanks, star of Apollo 13, is a confirmed space enthusiast but at 51 may be thought to be too old.

Armstrong was 38 when he and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. Matt Damon, star of the Bourne trilogy, will be 38 this year, while Eric Bana, whose credits include Hulk and the next Star Trek movie, is 39. Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal could also be in the running.

News of the film’s imminent production follows the success of last year’s In the Shadow of the Moon documentary, which rekindled widespread public interest and nostalgia in the US about the Apollo programme. Universal has now bought the rights to First Man: The Life of Neil A Armstrong, a biography by Nasa historian James Hansen, who gained rare access to the famously reclusive former astronaut, and a screenplay is being prepared by Nicole Perlman.

Now the hunt is on to play the man who left his historic bootprint in the moon dust. Barry Norman, the veteran film critic, predicted: ”He’s a big American hero, so it’s got to be someone like Brad Pitt. Looking for the all-American boy with the square jaw, they should send the script to him, whether he’d be any good or not. Pitt would be the ideal choice. Johnny Depp is a better actor but I think he’d be less accepted by the US public than Pitt.”

Dan Jolin, features editor of Empire magazine, had a different suggestion. ”Viggo Mortensen has got that kind of rugged frontiersman feel to him and I can imagine him in the astronaut get-up on the moon. He’s already quite out there as an actor.”

Armstrong has his own entry on the Internet Movie Database, which lists credits that include playing himself in The Simpsons in 1992. However, the momentous events of 1969 have been surprisingly neglected by Hollywood. Armstrong was portrayed in a 1996 TV film, Apollo 11, and a 1998 miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon. His only blockbuster movie appearance is as a background character in Apollo 13, a mission that followed Apollo 11 but went wrong with near-fatal consequences.

On the other hand, the film’s makers are going to find it hard to get much mileage from Armstrong’s dialogue.

The astronaut, now 77, is solitary and monosyllabic. ”The word ‘no’ is an argument to him,” his first wife Janet once remarked. He still refuses all interviews, makes only occasional public appearances, and goes out of his way to avoid any form of civic honour. ”I don’t want to be a living memorial,” he once grumbled. He has even refused to let a hospital take his name.

”The closer he got to the moon, the further away he became from his family,” said Perlman last week. ”He became such a perfect hero that while Buzz Aldrin was initially going to be the first man on the moon, Nasa reversed its decision because Neil was regarded as more heroic.”

Playing Armstrong won’t be easy, especially as the leading man will be required to deliver the most famous fluffed lines in history. His carefully scripted words — on setting foot on the moon — about ”a small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind” were garbled so that he missed out the indefinite article before ”man”. Typically, it took 30 years for Armstrong to admit the error. — guardian.co.uk Â