A biopic about the astronaut which complements admirably the recent Apollo 11 documentary.



The release date for this documentary about the astronaut Neil Armstrong was deliberately chosen with the intention of marking the fiftieth anniversary of the event, the moon landing, which gave him a place in history. A year ago, this film's director, David Fairhead, was involved in Spitfire, which similarly came out as a specially timed tribute, in that case to the centenary of the Royal Air Force. However, this time around it might seem that he had hit competition since that key event in Armstrong's life was covered in a rival documentary, Apollo 11, which on its recent opening earned very high acclaim. Fortunately the two films are, as it turns out, essentially different to each other. Consequently, the potential viewer is not really faced with an either/or decision.


Fairhead's film inevitably contains a fair amount about those crucial days in July 1969 and, when it does so, it is evident that it is Apollo 11 which provides the greater impact. But that documentary limited itself to film footage taken in that actual period whereas this is a picture which fills in the context of the space race and the development of the Houston Apollo programme from 1962 onwards. The training of the pilots and the testing of craft provide their own drama and this film touches too on the tragic death of Armstrong's friend and fellow astronaut Edward White killed along with two others when a prelaunch ground test went awry. The approach adopted in Armstrong is admittedly more conventional than that of Apollo 11, but it means that we get valuable commentary from various astronauts involved and from leading lights in NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration).


No less importantly, the choice of title here is thoroughly relevant. Armstrong is indeed a biopic in which Neil Armstrong's two sons, his sister and his first wife look back on his life and character. This small-town youth, a farm boy from Ohio, was fascinated by planes and their design even as a child and subsequently gained valuable experience as a combat pilot in the Korean war (he had been born in 1930). Again as a pilot he was involved in test work from 1955 onwards at Edwards Air Force Base and, on being chosen for the Apollo 11 flight, the man who would become the first human to walk on the moon was chosen due in part to being seen as a straight arrow. Although after that great event he would dislike the celebrity pressure that ensued, he took on the obligations to tour the world and to speak and did so in exactly the manner that those who had made the selection had expected of him.


In addition to looking at his early life and at his marriage to Janet (a marriage which would be marked by tragedy in 1962), Armstrong traces his later years up to his death following open-heart surgery at the age of 82. The film views him as a true hero and a modest man too, albeit that some saw his reticent manner as a flaw in his character (as it happens, despite being of German descent, there is about him something that brings to mind the British stiff upper lip as displayed so persuasively by the test pilot played by Jack Hawkins in the undervalued 1956 Ealing film The Man in the Sky). His words are spoken by Harrison Ford whose understated delivery is perfectly judged. While the film rightly chooses not to hide Neil Armstrong's weaknesses (his domestic life usually came second to his work and his family sometimes suffered accordingly), the portrait that emerges from this film is that of a man who may not have been flawless but who fully deserves the accolade delivered when he is described as an individual who always did what he believed to be right.




Featuring  Janet Armstrong, Rick Armstrong, Mark Armstrong, June Hoffman, Frank Borman, Michael Collins, Dave Scott, Gerry Griffin, Christopher Kraft, Joe Engle, Charlie Duke, Tom Hayward, Ernie Beauchamp, Charlie Mecham and the voice of Harrison Ford.


Dir David Fairhead, Pro Gareth Dodds and Keith Haviland, Ph Tim Cragg, Ed Paul Holland, Music Chris Roe.


Tin Goose Films/Haviland Media/Mark Stewart Productions/Hays Films-Altitude Film Entertainment.
100 mins. UK. 2019. Rel: 12 July 2019. Cert. PG.