Apollo 11 documentary review: you are there, on the Moon (Sundance London 2019)

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Apollo 11 green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This astonishing assemblage of vintage footage, some never before seen, may be unspoilable (we know how it ends) but it’s still hugely suspenseful, and beautifully immersive visually and emotionally.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a huge space geek
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

I will never cease to marvel at the audacity of the United States’ Cold War–era manned-spaceflight programs, which went from “What are rockets even?” (I exaggerate only slightly) and “Can humans survive spaceflight?” to “The Eagle has landed” and “That’s one small step…” in just over a decade. NASA’s Apollo program put two men on the Moon only a little over eight years after President John F. Kennedy said, Let’s do this crazy thing. The computers the mad scientists were attempting to pull this with were laughable compared to what we carry around in our pockets today. No one even knew what the surface of the Moon was like: Would a ship sink irretrievably into lunar dust? Would a lander, if it did manage to get down safely, be able to blast off again? Nobody knew! We just flung some guys at the Moon in a tin can and, buoyed by hopeful math — which was calculated on slide rules! — kept fingers crossed.

Audacity barely begins to cover it.

Apollo 11
Group photo (species level)…

If I had a time machine, one of the first historical moments I might visit would be the July 1969 launch of Apollo 11, the first one to try for a landing, just to get a feel for what the mood must have been like. (I must have heard some of the TV broadcasts — I was born a month later, and my fetus-y ears would have been pretty good at eight months. But this I do not remember.) Now I have a second best. Because in honor of the 50th anniversary of this beyond-historical event, the astonishing documentary Apollo 11 slams us back in time and drops us right in the middle of the Moon shot.

Director Todd Douglas Miller (Dinosaur 13) eschews many of the usual documentary tropes: there is no narration; there are no talking heads or re-creations. We are offered no context and given no explainers, because we all already know that stuff (and if we don’t, there are plenty of other resources available for a different kind of deep dive). Instead Miller drops us right into the event using nothing but archival footage from the era of every moment as it happens. Much of it comes from within NASA itself. Very little of it is material you will have seen before; some of it was rediscovered in the process of making this film and has not been previously seen publicly at all; some of that stuff was originally shot in large-format 70mm. All of it has been newly scanned in high resolution. (I did not see this movie in IMAX, and I might have another go at it that way.) This is an utterly stunning movie to look at.

Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong
TFW you are on the fucking Moon

Apollo 11 is immersive visually, yes, but powerfully emotionally, too. That feeling I wanted, of trying to grasp the excitement of it all: it’s here. And that’s just wild. This may be the ultimate we-know-how-it-ends story. (Spoiler: They make it to the Moon and home again safely!) And this is still an intensely suspenseful experience. The pure pleasure of the crowds assembled at Cape Kennedy to watch the launch: electric. The tension in mission control: riveting. The earthshattering roar of the massive rocket blasting off: thunderous. The casual joy of the photos Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took of each other in their tiny capsule on the lunar surface: charming.

Some moments, of course, remind you that this was long ago: We catch a glimpse of just one lonely woman among all the dudes in mission control; absolutely everybody is smoking. But there are many more moments when it’s easy to get lost in the you-are-there immediacy of these incredible events. This may be as close to a time machine taking us back to the summer of 1969 as we’ll ever get. Apollo 11 must be seen as a vitally important synthesis of first-person historical footage, but it’s also a thrilling entertainment, too.

viewed during the 2019 Sundance London film festival

see also:
First Man movie review: over the moon
Armstrong documentary review: the man we put on the Moon

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