Armstrong is a fascinating documentary film about the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and is a welcome companion to Damien Chazelle’s 2018 film First Man that starred Ryan Gosling. That film was rather divisive, likely deliberately so, as it dwelt less on the space program and the mechanics of the Apollo missions and more on Armstrong himself (the film aptly summarised by Mark Kermode as ‘more inner space than outer space’). The problem for First Man was that Armstrong was always a private man, and rather kept his distance from the media, something of a cold fish to anyone outside his inner circle of family and friends. There is a very telling observation in Armstrong that ‘thank God there was no social media back then’, and this resonated with me a great deal. Can you imagine what it would be like, had the first moon landing happened in today’s world? That first man would have been eaten alive by the demands of our modern mass-media world. It was probably bad enough for Armstrong post-Apollo 11, I don’t know how he would have managed to survive something like that now- the demands of the media world today and the added hysterics of social media… it doesn’t bear thinking about. Lacking the dramatic conflicts (albeit largely fictional dramatisation) of films like Apollo 13, First Man initially seemed a cold, distant film, but having seen Armstrong, I think First Man will reward greater on repeat viewing.
Of course the tantalising thing about First Man, and of Armstrong himself, is the sense of mystery about him, because he refused to become a part of the celebrity media circus that he might have been. Part of that mystery, beyond the facts of who he was and his accomplishments, is just how do you survive something like Apollo 11? He became one of the most famous men not just alive, but in all of history- his is a name that will be remembered in the same way as the greatest kings or Pharaohs or the likes of Da Vinci, long after the rest of us, even the most famous people alive today, the musicians or actors or scientists or leaders, are long gone and forgotten.
Which is part of the dichotomy of Armstrong, because although his name will always most chiefly represent all that Apollo achieved, he himself was always clear about his sense of personal good fortune and always referenced all the work of the many thousands of people who got him to the moon. Essentially, of course, being an Astronaut was his job and while its a curious thing to look at it like that, I think it’s important too. He earned his place on Apollo 11 and was ultimately the preferred choice for the first lunar footstep- this was by merit, and he earned it. But it could as easily been someone else through some other twist of chance.
This documentary has input from his family and freinds to inform much about Armstrong’s personal life that the public only dimly knew, and features a surprising amount of Super-8mm home movie footage of Armstrong and his family. I also found it interesting how much footage existed of Armstrong’s test-flight days- it’s odd to consider his life was being recorded so early on when its historic value would not transpire until much later. But it’s the fairly candid footage of his home life that fascinates, particularly of the 1960s and how that corresponds to its depiction in First Man, which was actually not far off the mark.
Anyone who recalls the awful voiceover on the theatrical version of Blade Runner will be amazed by the excellent narration here by Harrison Ford, who reads speeches and personal letters by Armstrong allowing us to hear the man’s thoughts and insights. Its extremely well read by Ford, infecting it with considerable nuance through pauses and inflection of voice.
On the whole I’d suggest this is a well-balanced and informative film, that tells us a great deal about the man and his achievements without falling into the trap of awe and idolising him. While to some extent Armstrong remains something of a mystery (there always seems to be something ‘unknowable’ about him, so frustrating in First Man) there is some achievement here in distancing the human being from the event that would dominate his life and his place in history.