With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaching, it’s obvious that attention will be brought to this astonishing feet of engineering and logistical achievement. Last year’s First Man was an underloved treasure, a film that beautifully humanized the events by having us witness them through the eyes of the reticent Neil Armstrong. In some ways the antithesis, in others the perfect companion, Todd Miller’s exceptional documentary Apollo 11 widens the scope further, bringing a direct cinema experience that’s out of this world.
Using hundreds of hours of footage culled from NASA archives, the film gives a verité look at the events surrounding the mission. 16mm, 35mm, and newly uncovered 65mm footage that had lain dormant for a half century combine with an incredible soundscape drawn from thousands of hours of recordings from Mission Control and the capsule hurtling in space to provide a remarkable you-are-there feeling that owes more to Woodstock than Hollywood blockbusters like Apollo 13.
As a primer about the Space Race, the film is definitive, yet it also has enough new material to completely enthrall even those already familiar with the greatest hits of some of these images. A personal favorite is a beautifully Kubrickian tracking dolly shot down banks and banks of systems behind Mission Control. These are the non-sexy aspects behind the scenes, the quotidian equipment that fed into the main console. It gives a very real sense not only of the magnitude of the mission but the incredible breadth of manpower required.
The astonishing clarity of the newly restored footage exposes the smallest details of the handcrafted nature of the vessels. To see haphazardly applied aluminum tape on the lunar module, looking more like a school project than a multi-million dollar spacecraft set to land on another celestial orb, is to recognize both the pragmatic reality and absolute preposterousness of such an endeavor.
Following the arc of the mission itself, Apollo 11 treats these small moments just as powerfully and truthfully as it does the more iconic images, such as the first steps or the launch. We know what takes place, but as the audience’s heart races (helped by a clever and unobtrusive Moog-based score), we laugh hearing that the astronauts have pulses near rest.
The images astound, the audio soundtrack is a master class in montage, and the events captured are herculean in scope. The documentary is an unabashed celebration of what took place, which for some may miss a major part of the story. However, when we hear chatter about Chappaquidick and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the film cleverly interjects the far more Earthbound travails, putting Nixon’s haughty poetry in an almost macabre context.
There’s talk of an IMAX release for this film, and that would be a treat for any cinephile. On whatever size screen you watch it (the bigger the better!), this wonderful tribute to the mission and those behind the scenes is a perfect encapsulation of the achievement. Questions about the monstrous cost and fickleness of the public for such endeavors would come later; this film beautifully captures the apotheosis of the American space program and the fulfillment of a dream for all of humanity – that with courage, tenacity, and a bit of bravura, riding on this improbable vehicle, members of our species could step foot on another world. Apollo 11 reminds us of the triumph of that mission, doing so with a power rarely achieved.