Just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing comes this documentary about Neil Armstrong, whom Ryan Gosling portrayed in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” last year. Though it does not ignore the darker aspects in the astronaut’s life and character—it touches on the grief he felt over his young daughter’s death, and the strains his preoccupation with his missions put on his family—the portrait drawn by David Fairhead is far less psychologically penetrating than Chazelle’s docu-drama, which, aided by Gosling’s absolutely committed performance, could of course delve more deeply, and indulge in a greater degree of speculation.
The Armstrong we see and hear here—in archival footage and in the man’s own words, read by Harrison Ford in grave tones—is a man who could not be accused of a lack of emotion, but externally presented himself to the world as well-adjusted, dedicated and utterly decent, living by the simple principle that one should always do what he thinks right. It was his seemingly uncomplicated, straight-arrow persona, in fact, that led to his being chosen as the man who should first set foot on the the lunar surface, since he could be expected to wear the celebrity that came with the assignment with grace and self-effacement. (Even his name, after all, seemed to exemplify the strong, rugged type.)
“Armstrong” covers his life from childhood, through service in the Korean War and a career as a test pilot, to acceptance into the NASA program and the exemplary role he played in it. Testimonials from friends and colleagues are uniformly adulatory, noting in particularly his apparent fearlessness under pressure and his ability to take charge (quite literally, bypassing computer programming to assume manual control) when he thought it necessary. Old buddies from his Ohio neighborhood remember him fondly, as do those who served with him in combat, and NASA officials and comrades are equally positive. (That is certainly true of his Apollo 11 crewmate Michael Collins, although the third man on the mission, the somewhat cantankerous Buzz Aldrin, is missing here.)
The film is perhaps most interesting when it goes beyond the story of Armstrong’s earlier life (which “First Man” treats with greater power) and coverage of the moon landing (treated more compellingly in Todd Douglas Miller’s remarkable “Apollo 11”) to deal with the astronaut’s later years, when—after the round of ticker-tape parades was over and the public fascination with space travel had died down—he retired to a more quiet, out-of-the-spotlight career as a teacher. It was only reluctantly that he returned to a more public role, through service both on government committees and on company boards.
In this latter portion of “Armstrong” we’re shown aspects of his life that have been less treated in previous films, and Fairhead deals with them intelligently, particularly through interviews with his wife Janet and his son Mark. Armstrong’s inability to separate himself from work and give time to his family eventually led to divorce, something they both discuss.
What emerges from Fairhead’s film is a portrait of a man who, whatever personal demons and insecurities he might have had, proved to exude the very image that NASA and America desired—of a straightforward guy who did his job diligently and could show humor and self-deprecation in public—along with some talent with words as well. It’s a good celebratory piece for the anniversary of the man who took the one small step that was also a giant leap.