We are reminded in Matthew 6:1-4 that we should not trumpet our righteousness in front of others. The Neil Armstrong emerging from this eponymous documentary is the personification of humility and integrity, refusing to claim ownership of his remarkable adventure fifty years ago this month. At every opportunity, he shared the credit for the first Moon landing with the 400,000 people involved in the Apollo programme. His modesty could not be in sharper contrast to our modern culture in which fame is craved for its own sake, rather than as a by-product of achievement.
Director David Fairchild delivers a fresh telling of America's space triumph, using Armstrong family home movies not previously seen, and avoiding the more familiar clips of Apollo 11's journey. Fairchild, who brings his passion for aviation to the subject, stresses Armstrong's brilliance as a pilot and aeronautical engineer. His integrity, grace under pressure and ability to solve catastrophic problems in a split second, made him the obvious choice to command the first attempt to land on the Moon.
But the surviving NASA officials and astronauts interviewed also make it clear that Armstrong was selected because he would not be an embarrassment in the days and years of global adulation that would inevitably follow if the mission was successful. He remained modest, steady and hard-working, retiring from NASA to become a professor of engineering in his native Ohio. There was no struggle with alcohol or depression; no outbursts or craving for attention; no desperate endorsements of aftershave. Instead, he promoted the cause of NASA and science whenever possible, and spent more time with his children.
The unique strength of this documentary is the use of interviews with Armstrong's family and friends who add depth to our knowledge of this famously quiet, thoughtful and reticent man. It is also a pleasure to see the elderly gentlemen who flew to the Moon in the early 1970s reminiscing as if it happened yesterday. Armstrong's sister recalls him telling her that as he stood on the Lunar surface, he was most struck by the fragility of Earth, hanging in the sky above him. He feared that the greatest threat to our planet was damage being done by humans.
Armstrong's words, read by Harrison Ford, convey the calmness and understatement of an intellectual who shunned grandiosity. There was no nationalist bluster, either; he repeatedly stressed Apollo 11 was humanity's achievement, and (against the backdrop of the Vietnam war) that they went to the Moon in peace for all mankind. At the end of 90 minutes it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Armstrong could not be more different that the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Armstrong, 90 minutes. Directed by David Fairhead, in selected cinemas from July 12th
For more information see: www.armstrongfilm.co.uk/
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