'Armstrong': Film Review

A straightforward film overshadowed by both features and docs that have recently commemorated the Apollo 11 anniversary.
7/12/2019

Fifty years after he walked on the moon, Neil Armstrong is the sole focus of a doc by David Fairhead.

David Fairhead is no Johnny-come-lately to NASA nostalgia: Two years before the moon landing's 50th anniversary opened the floodgates, his tightly focused Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo celebrated the hundreds of behind-the-scenes engineers and scientists who got America's space program off the ground. Some of the men he interviewed there return in Armstrong, a doc with an old-fashioned mission even its subject might not have endorsed: turning the spotlight on the guy who took that one small step onto the moon before anyone else. Though the doc will be welcomed by a certain breed of space buff, both its impact and its commercial hopes are seriously diminished by Todd Douglas Miller's awe-harnessing Apollo 11, which, unlike this film, demanded to be experienced in a theater.

One might've thought that docs like Mission Control had taught space fiends the folly of obsessing over individuals. But the late Neil Armstrong represents the kind of man many Americans (especially older ones) wish still existed in the public sphere: straight arrows who weren't just exceptionally smart and competent, but strong and silent. The film glancingly admits a downside to this personality type — late in life, Armstrong's wife, Janet, finally decided he would never make enough time for his family and divorced him — but it mostly characterizes it as an admirable modesty, the same wariness of fame that caused Armstrong to return to Ohio for his post-astronaut life.

However sparing he might have been with words, Armstrong could be eloquent when needed. In narration borrowing from direct quotes, Harrison Ford contributes substantially to the doc, bringing gravitas to, say, the letters Armstrong wrote his parents during his Korean War stint in the U.S. Navy's fighter squadron. He wrote of harrowing accidents, foreshadowing the danger that would be ever-present in his later career.

The film recounts a couple of perilous adventures (like one in which he flew an X-15 so high its mechanical controls had no effect) as it fills in the more prosaic parts of his biography. The format is very familiar, and the resulting portrait might've been fairly lifeless if not for the wealth of footage shot as the space race heated up and NASA started turning its astronauts into media figures. Armstrong is a good sport when placed in rooms full of cameras, not so shy that he can't tell a joke.

If much of this vintage footage gets a viewer itching for the jocular mythmaking of The Right Stuff (hope you're not in a Netflix-only household!), a few interviewees remind us that Armstrong earned his famous moon-dust bootprint for more than his test-pilot cred. As his Apollo 11 crewmate Michael Collins puts it (the third man in the capsule, Buzz Aldrin, is conspicuously absent), NASA wasn't only looking for the man who could best handle the stress of stepping onto the moon. Just as important was, "what was he gonna be like after the flight?" Whatever the possible downsides of its subject's no-nonsense personality, Armstrong shows it was just the thing to keep him sane and decent when he was, for a time, the most famous man on the planet.

Production company: Haviland Digital
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director: David Fairhead
Producers: Gareth Dodds, Keith Haviland
Executive producers: Jim Hays, Mark Stewart
Director of photography: Tim Cragg
Editor: Paul Holland
Composer: Chris Roe

99 minutes