VOD film review: Armstrong
Matthew Turner | On 13, Jul 2019
Director: David Fairhead
Cast: Harrison Ford, Neil Armstrong, Mark Armstrong, Eric Armstrong, Janet Armstrong, June Armstrong
Watch Armstrong online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / eir Vision Movies / Google Play / Sky Store
Directed by David Fairhead, this cradle-to-grave documentary about the life and career of astronaut Neil Armstrong makes the perfect companion piece to both moon mission doc Apollo 11 and Damian Chazelle’s Armstrong drama First Man (2018). It offers a comprehensive and often fascinating look at the life of Armstrong, before, during and after he became the first man on the moon.
Fairhead adopts the traditional documentary structure for the film, combining contemporary interviews with friends, family members and colleagues with a wealth of smartly edited archive footage, including a number of Armstrong’s never-before-seen home movies. In a nice touch, Harrison Ford (himself a keen aviator) is on hand to narrate Armstrong’s own words, drawn from letters, diaries, books and speeches, and his voice lends exactly the right amount of gravitas.
The film begins with Neil’s childhood in Wapakoneta, Ohio, where it’s revealed by his sister, June, that their mother used to make them wear cowbells so she could track their movements. His love of flying was apparently kick-started by a cheap model airplane given to him by his mother, and it’s noted that he received his pilot’s licence even before he received his driving licence, flying his first plane solo at the age of 16.
Armstrong then served in the Korean War, where he faced death and destruction and gained a reputation for keeping a cool head in a crisis, as well as being a gifted engineer. That lead to becoming a test pilot and then on to NASA and the historic Apollo 11 mission, which is covered here in some detail, up to and including footage of President Nixon making his famous phone call to the moon.
If anything, the film becomes even more fascinating once the Apollo 11 mission ends, observing how a quiet and, by all accounts, ego-free individual dealt with suddenly becoming the most famous man on the planet. As one of his sons remarks, “Thank God social media didn’t exist back then.” Noting that Armstrong evidently felt he couldn’t say no to anything he was asked to do, the film depicts his gradual step back from the public eye, only to be drawn back into the spotlight when President Reagan asked him to serve on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
Throughout the film, Fairhead gives equal weight to Armstrong’s professional and personal lives, helped significantly by contributions from first wife Janet and his two sons, Eric and Mark. The most heartbreaking section touches on the death of Neil and Janet’s daughter, Karen, from cancer at the age of two, something that was also explored in Chazelle’s First Man, although the documentary falls short of speculating whether that had any bearing on Armstrong’s subsequent decision to throw himself into his work.
There are a couple of odd notes, such as the fact that Buzz Aldrin barely features at all (by contrast, Michael Collins, the third man on the Apollo 11 mission, is one of the key talking heads) and it skirts over certain details like the break-down of Neil and Janet’s marriage (and his subsequent remarriage), but the end result is an engaging, well rounded and quietly moving portrait of a hard-working man and his remarkable achievement. Stick around until the end of the credits for a bonus archive footage montage that includes an entirely unexpected cameo.