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rare female film critic | by maryann johanson

Armstrong documentary review: the man we put on the Moon

Armstrong green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Meet the “nerdy engineer” who dreamed of a life in aviation… and landed a tin can on the Moon. A deeply moving portrait of the modest man who seems to have been destined for his historic voyage.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): big space geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

There’s a thing I learned about the Moon landing from last year’s First Man that was something I can’t believe I’d never heard before. Or maybe I had heard it but the significance of it hadn’t previously registered. It’s this: Though Neil Armstrong had flown and seen action in the Korean war, he was — unlike most of the other astronaut candidates, who were active-duty — no longer a military pilot. He was a civilian when he joined NASA’s astronaut program. The first human being to walk on the Moon could have been a soldier; chances were good that he would be. But instead, the first person on the Moon was, first and foremost, a geek.

Armstrong

Janet Armstrong and her sons, Rick and Mark, watch the Apollo 11 launch, July 1969.

This is thrilling to me.

Here, in filmmaker David Fairhead’s excellent companion to both First Man and the recent Apollo 11, we meet the “nerdy engineer” — Armstrong’s description of himself — an Ohio farm boy who dreamed of a life in aviation, earned his pilot’s license before he could drive a car… and landed a tin can on the Moon before he took a stroll outside on our dead satellite neighbor. This is a deeply moving documentary portrait of a modest, almost incredibly unassuming man, yet one whom it is so tempting to see, in retrospect, as positively destined for his historic voyage, with what seems to have been precisely the right mix of derring-do and cool-under-pressure reserve required to pull off such an astounding adventure.

Armstrong isn’t hagiography: Fairhead includes new interviews with Armstrong’s sons, Rick and Mark, whose reminiscing doesn’t cover only what it was like to watch — and hear, and feel — their father’s massive Saturn V rocket blast off from Cape Kennedy as very young children, but also the devastating impact Armstrong’s career had on their mother, Janet. By the time the film gets around to covering the couple’s divorce, there’s the weight of inevitability about it, as if of course being absent from your family’s lives, even if you were preparing to go to the Moon, is going to have a negative impact. There’s quiet acknowledgement here of the personal sacrifices made in the pursuit of knowledge and progress… which includes unasked-for, unchosen sacrifices made by those in the orbit, no pun intended, of “great men.”

Neil Armstrong died in 2012, but his presence is still palpable here, and he still has important things to say to us today.
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Armstrong died in 2012, but his presence is still palpable here via the narration, by Harrison Ford (The Secret Life of Pets 2, Blade Runner 2049) reading Armstrong’s own words. Reticent the astronaut may have been, but he still has important things to say to us today, wisdom acquired through his almost literally unique perspective on our world. He went to the Moon and looked back and saw a planet that needs to be “protect[ed] from its own population.” That is arguably more urgently true now than it ever has been before, and if we take anything at this half-century anniversary of the Moon landing, this might be the most essential. We see here, in this absolutely terrific film, just how difficult it was to send just a few very carefully chosen men to a place that was so inhospitable that they could not survive there without massive technological assistance, and even then not for long. We cannot afford to take our planetary life support for granted, because there is nowhere else for us to go. And we can take that from someone who has been out in the nowhere.


Armstrong will debut in UK cinemas tomorrow night, July 9th, in a special one-night-only presentation featuring, after the film, additional footage from last week’s world premiere in London. Dara Ó Briain hosts a Q&A with guests director David Fairhead, Mark Armstrong, astronaut Nicole Stott, and Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE of the BBC’s The Sky at Night. See the film’s official UK site for cinemas, and to purchase tickets.

Armstrong then opens in cinemas in the UK and the US, and will be available to stream, on Friday, July 12th.


see also:
First Man movie review: over the moon
Apollo 11 documentary review: you are there, on the Moon


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other theatrical releases.



green light 3.5 stars

Armstrong (2019) | directed by David Fairhead
US/Can release: Jul 12 2019 (VOD same day)
UK/Ire release: Jul 12 2019 (VOD same day)

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated PG (mild violence, threat)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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