There’s a short scene near the end of “Apollo 11,” the thrilling new documentary about history’s greatest spaceflight, in which Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong make a TV broadcast on their way home from the moon.
“We’d like to give a special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft, who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their heart and all their abilities into the [space]crafts,” says Armstrong. “To those people tonight we give a special thank you.”
The film cuts to a shot of thousands of technicians assembled in an immense hangar, beaming with pride. At the zenith of his fame, the hero proves his worth by honoring those to whom the glory is truly owed.
I watched “Apollo 11” twice this week, and came away with two very different impressions. What awed me the first time was scale: The crawler-transporter that moves the Saturn V rocket to the launchpad at Cape Canaveral. The rocket itself, standing 363 feet tall. People lining up for miles to watch the launch. The shuddering noise and force of liftoff. Speeds accelerating to 24,000 mph. Re-entry temperatures hitting 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The smallness of Earth, the stillness of the moon, the limitlessness of space.
Everything is immense, mind-boggling.
By contrast, what I mainly noticed the second time was the look of suppressed nervousness on Collins’ face as he is being suited up on the morning of the flight. Biometric data showing Armstrong’s heart pounding at 156 beats a minute at the moment Eagle touches down on the lunar surface, belying his reputation as Mr. Coolstone. A shadow of deep melancholy that seems to overcome Aldrin as he speaks to his family once the mission is over.
Three men are going to try to fly to the moon. Three billion people will lionize them if they succeed; lament (or mourn) them if they fail; mock them if they screw up. No pressure.
How do they cope? In last year’s biopic, “First Man,” Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is portrayed as a 1950s guy stuck in a 1960s world. Repression is the key to his emotional composure, achieved at the expense of family life.
Asked by a reporter to describe his feelings “as far as responsibilities of representing mankind on this trip,” Armstrong brings the question down to size: “It’s a job that we collectively said was possible, that we could do, and of course the nation itself is backing us, so we just sincerely hope that we measure up to that.”
The answer is quintessential Armstrong: He’s the guy who prefers to turn poetry into prose. The one time he seems least himself is when he utters the line that’s supposed to immortalize him: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Dropping the “a” before “man” winds up being his sole extraterrestrial mistake.
It’s not that Armstrong is incapable of eloquence. It’s that his manner of eloquence is direct, gracious and above all modest when everyone else — Walter Cronkite and Richard Nixon in particular — strains for grandiloquence.
And there lies the greatest marvel of the Apollo program: Not so much the size of the endeavor, or the machines that were built to accomplish it, but rather the quality of self-effacement among the men most associated with its success. Armstrong, easily one of the most celebrated men of the last half-century, refused to become a celebrity. He kept his politics to himself. He made no oracular pronouncements. He did not amass fabulous wealth.
He stayed humble, and human, in the era of relentless puffery and self-promotion. This, too, feels as bygone as the Saturn V, the Right Stuff, and the “one small step”— and as missed.
How do we reclaim it?