Nostalgia is one helluva drug. For instance, it can make you feel like there was actually a day when the entire United States banded together — just weeks after the Stonewall riots, and in the thick of the Vietnam War, supported by a president who would soon be on the verge of impeachment — in sheer fascination and pride over the news that a man had landed on the moon. At least, that’s the way the story goes in director David Fairhead’s new documentary, “Armstrong.”
To be honest, the idyll that the country was united on July 20, 1969, came (ironically) from the aforementioned President Richard Nixon himself, who phoned astronaut Neil Armstrong to congratulate him for his momentous moon arrival but especially for prompting a national day of celebration, complete with parades and other fanfare.
It’s an alluring sentiment that permeates the entire film, which almost deifies the eponymous rocketeer, save for a few points in the narrative that merely highlight his human complexity and prioritization of his work over his family. But in essence, Armstrong’s (and comrade Buzz Aldrin’s) accomplishment had done what Nixon couldn’t, and that was far more significant.
To tell this story beyond its Wikipedia context, Fairhead (“Mercury 13,” “The Last Man on the Moon”) attempts to reveal the soul of a man from the beginning of his life. Through interviews with Armstrong’s childhood friends and family, intertwined with thoughtful first-person narration by Harrison Ford, it becomes increasingly clear that the pioneering astronaut was a distant, reticent man who “lived in a shell.”
According to the plainly stated, notably patriotic narration, Armstrong “wanted to live a life of aviation,” so he collected airplanes as a kid, studied every nook and cranny of the industry, and served in the Korean War. And as an interesting aside that later becomes a more dominant part of the narrative, Armstrong meets and marries his wife Janet, who’s also interviewed in the film and serves as the only throughline between Armstrong, the phenomenal figure, and Armstrong, the mere mortal.
A few humble home video clips capture Armstrong’s kids, Karen and Mark, and smiling wife at home, but there is a noticeable pivot when Karen dies at age 3 following a brain tumor. And at the risk of sounding cliché, the light goes out in this somewhat jovial portrait to yield an even more isolated Armstrong, who — after he and Janet had another son, Eric — decided to throw himself deeper into his work. “I thought the best I could do is [work],” Ford narrates. “I was doing the best I could.”
Similarly portrayed in last year’s “First Man,” Armstrong’s preoccupation with his work bothered his wife, who — even according to Mark and Eric’s own accounts in the film — never really complained about being forced to virtually parent her children alone, even though it ultimately led to their divorce in 1994. And like the Ryan Gosling-led scripted feature, there is little discussion in “Armstrong” about the astronaut’s grief over losing his daughter and whether that actually propelled him toward the risky Apollo 11 mission in 1969, just two years after the Apollo 1 flash fire killed three men. The two events are sequentially highlighted in the film, which is careful to not suggest anyt further connections.
In doing so, “Armstrong” becomes an all-American tale about a man whose number just happened to be called at the right time for the moon-landing mission which, according to the narration, was just another day on the job for the astronaut. As multiple friends and colleagues insist in the film, Armstrong never sought fame or admiration (both later proved to be overwhelming for him), which presents his feat as even more honorable.
There are several points throughout “Armstrong” that feel sluggish — or in the case of its patriotic viewpoints, mawkish — but it does manage to soar (please forgive the pun) once it actually brings the audience to the moon with Armstrong, Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins. Between editor Paul Holland’s (“Mercury 13”) perfectly timed cuts from the determined crew inside the rocket to the anxious team at the NASA base camp, and the gloriously crisp audio recovered in part by George Foulgham (“The Quiet One”), we’re dropped into the center of the action. That culminates with the amazingly restored footage of the successful landing, Armstrong’s footprint on the moon, and his placement of the American flag.
There is intriguing subtext buried within “Armstrong” about who we designate as our heroes at a time of great divide, but Fairhead succeeds at paying tribute to a man who, were he still alive today, probably would have balked at this kind of memorial. But maybe that’s the sacrifice you pay to create even an illusion of unity and an image of what hope could look like in a time of turmoil.