On the surface, documentaries about recognizable public figures would seem to be a slam dunk since there’s often inherent viewer interest in the story you’re going to tell.
But there’s a pitfall to this approach too: Most of your audience will come into the film knowing a fair amount about your subject. And if the film is unable to leave the audience with a few new facts or tidbits about their heroes, they are likely to leave a little disappointed.
Such is the downfall of “Armstrong,” a documentary on the life of Neil Armstrong, which doesn’t prove to be much more enlightening than what you learned about the American astronaut in grade school.
Perhaps the problem is space film fatigue, as “Armstrong” follows in the footsteps of Damien Chazelle’s lovely scripted “First Man” from 2018 and the critically acclaimed documentary “Apollo 11” from earlier in 2019. All three of these films were timed to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last summer, and “Armstrong” especially feels like an obligation – a chance to cash in on our collective nostalgia without saying anything new or interesting.
As you may expect, “Armstrong” spends the bulk of its screen time on that Apollo 11 moon mission, and the newly restored archival footage is lovely to look at. But the talking heads- including Armstrong’s NASA colleagues and family – don’t have much to do besides state the obvious and talk about how wonderful Armstrong was. The information we do get about Armstrong and the space program feels pretty basic- a cursory introduction to key players and events that won’t provide any revelations for those who lived through it or experienced it through other books or films.
The more interesting bits, I thought, were the excursions into other parts of Armstrong’s life- his military service in Korea, his role in investigating the Challenger disaster in the 1980’s – but all of this is given a rather cursory overview. More of Armstrong’s life outside of Apollo 11 could have made “Armstrong” a more interesting film for newbies and history buffs alike.
The best parts of “Armstrong” are Armstrong’s own writings – many of which are read for the first time in this film. Armstrong was always an internal person and his writings provide a window into his soul that few had. Good ol’ Harrison Ford recites them with the sort of grizzled gravitas only he can.
The score by Chris Roe oversells all of the emotions, and the film, while only an hour-and-a-half, feels much longer since it is mostly a retread of other, better films about the space program.
If you’re just learning about the Space Race and its players for the first time, you might find “Armstrong” more enlightening than I did. And at the very least, the film provides a nice tribute – not just to Armstrong, but to all of the hard-working men and women who helped him land on the moon.
But “Armstrong” (not rated, but with PG-rated content including some fiery crashes) feels much more like “a small step” than a “giant leap” to me. And for a film that should soar, it remains curiously earthbound and stubbornly refuses to take flight.
Armstrong probably didn’t need a definitive biographical portrait at this point anyways, but it would have been nice if the film bearing his name shared his sense of adventure and ingenuity. No such luck.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.