Armstrong review – moon landing doc gets lost in space

This retelling of the Neil Armstrong story has been eclipsed by superior studies of his historic lunar mission

This Neil Armstrong documentary feels like unrequired viewing coming so soon after two cracking moon landing movies: Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a character study correcting the myth of Armstrong as a surly recluse, and Apollo 11, the thrilling documentary made with colour footage of the mission found at the back of a filing cabinet at Nasa. By contrast with the latter film, Armstrong looks made for TV, filled with good ol’ boys from Nasa – elderly white men every one of them, who you suspect are still pining for the days of American life when men were men and women waited by the phone in headscarves.

Armstrong was an Ohio farm boy who grew up obsessed with airplanes and got his pilot’s licence before he could drive. He flew fighter planes in the Korean war; it gave him character and backbone, he said. It also acquainted him with death. As a civilian test pilot and later on Project Apollo, he risked his life and lost colleagues. Tragically, his daughter Karen died from a brain tumour, aged two. The film features upsetting home movie footage of Karen at home, her balance impaired, desperately unwell. Watching it, you realise how Chazelle prettified her illness in First Man.

It was Armstrong’s coolness of temperament, his unflappability, that gave him the advantage over the 30 men vying to lead Apollo 11. He was a straight arrow. On the moon, after making that legendary speech, he got down to the job of gathering samples: “We weren’t there to meditate. We were there to work.” His words are narrated here by Harrison Ford, all gravel on velvet – a smart move because poetic Armstrong was not. Interviews with his sons Rick and Mark are sensitively done; they admit that their dad wasn’t around much: “Mum was our unsung hero.” Janet Armstrong, interviewed before her death, is a formidable presence.

• Armstrong is released in the UK and the US on 12 July.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Apollo 11 review – stunning return to an incredible journey
Featuring previously unseen footage, this electrifying documentary marks 50 years since the first moon landing

Peter Bradshaw

28, Jun, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
Apollo 11 review – a front-row seat for the moon landing
Composed entirely of archive footage, this documentary invests the historic mission with a tense immediacy

Wendy Ide

30, Jun, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Astronauts' photographs from space flights and moon landing go on sale
Vintage prints of pictures taken by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and others to be auctioned by Bloomsbury in London

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

23, Oct, 2011 @4:41 PM

Article image
Apollo 10½ review – Richard Linklater’s sensational coming-of-ager heads for the stars
Richard Linklater combines his affinities for rotoscoping and depicting the quiet magic of childhood in a wonderful paean to late-60s idealism

Peter Bradshaw

30, Mar, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds review – Werner Herzog dodges meteorites | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
In his latest science doc, the existential film-maker considers the cataclysmic threat from space – as real now as it ever was

Peter Bradshaw

12, Nov, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
To the Moon review – beguiling essay on the satellite’s pervasive pull
Threading together sequences showing the lunar face of subjects from love to madness, this is a gorgeous journey into outer and inner space

Phil Hoad

23, Nov, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Prisoners of the Moon review – the dark side of the Apollo 11 story
This unsettling documentary focuses on an engineer from Nazi Germany who was a key player in America’s lunar programme

Leslie Felperin

04, Jul, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
The greatest photos ever? Why the moon landing shots are artistic masterpieces
From a spacesuited everyman to a golden-legged invader, the lunar images were astonishingly poetic works of art that captured humanity evolving before our very eyes. Can they ever be surpassed?

Jonathan Jones

17, Jul, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Neil Armstrong breaks silence to give accountants moon exclusive

Notoriously reclusive Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong gives video interview to Certified Practicing Accountants of Australia

Alok Jha, science correspondent

23, May, 2012 @5:22 PM

Article image
Moon landing in 1969 was one small step for scrapbooking kids | Brief letters
Brief letters: Neil Armstrong | KLM | Boris Johnson | Jeffrey Epstein and Donald Trump | Phoebe Waller-Bridge | Ed Sheeran


19, Jul, 2019 @4:21 PM