Arriving in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch, ARMSTRONG is one of several films that have emerged over the past year to document the series of small steps that led up to that one great leap for mankind. What separates this documentary from others is its focus not on the mission itself, but on the man who commanded it. Cataloguing Neil Armstrong’s life, from a young boy with a fascination for aeroplanes, through to the moon landing, and beyond, ARMSTRONG is a detailed and intriguing, if slightly superficial, look at the life of the first man to walk on the surface of the moon.
“Looking back, we were really very privileged, to have lived in that thin slice of history. Where we changed how man looks at himself, and what he might become.” These words of Neil Armstrong’s (narrated with thoughtful gravitas by Harrison Ford), set the stage for what this documentary intends to achieve: exploring what made Armstrong the perfect fit for the Apollo mission, and how he, as a person, was irrevocably changed as a result of it.
Director David Fairhead approaches this aesthetic by taking archive footage of some of the major events in Armstrong’s life, such as the Gemini and Apollo launches, and interweaving them with previously unseen home videos, and talking-head interviews with some of the people who knew him best. Armstrong’s wife and children feature prominently, as well as friends, fellow astronauts, and officials from his time with both NASA and the US Navy, all painting a picture of a quiet and modest man, with a love for engineering. Alongside these humanising glimpses of a 20th-century icon, Ford’s narration, reading Armstrong’s own words, provides an exceptionally intimate, first-hand account of events such as the Korean War, the rigorous NASA astronaut training, and of course, the moon landing.
Though not the central focus of this film, it’s hard to not consider the Apollo launch to be the main event – landing human beings on other celestial bodies tends to draw focus like that. As the lunar module approaches the moon, the film cuts between footage of the descent to the surface, the breath-holding scientists in mission control, and regular people watching on TVs around the world, escalating the tension and anticipation with a subtle but dramatic score, courtesy of composer Chris Roe.
Beyond the moon landing, the film examines the unwanted celebrity that was bestowed upon Armstrong, as well as briefly discussing how his demanding work life put a strain on his family, ultimately leading to the end of his marriage. While this is discussed a little with Neil’s wife Janet and his sons Rick and Mark, it is mostly glossed over in favour of the more glamourous moments in his life. The same treatment befalls discussions regarding the illness and ultimate death of Neil and Janet’s young daughter, Karen, as well as the accident that caused the deaths of Ed White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Roger B. Chaffee during a series of prelaunch tests. Given that this film intends to dig into the man behind the moon landing, it is unfortunate that these incidents that affected him so greatly are largely avoided, especially given the fact that they were both at the emotional core of 2018’s FIRST MAN.
The choice to breeze past these darker moments can be forgiven, however, as there is still plenty to enjoy here. Particular highlights include the original song Flight of Fancy –composed by Mark Armstrong, Neil’s younger son, and sung by Kali Armstrong, Neil’s granddaughter – which is played during the credits over unused home video footage, and Ford’s narration providing Armstrong’s logic that led him to utter that iconic “one small step” line. All in all, ARMSTRONG is an illuminating experience, but one that spends a little too much time basking in its own glow, and not enough exploring the dark side of the moon.