I was 17-years old and alone at home (my family was away on vacation) when I heard those famous words: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The worldwide excitement that the event sparked is brought to new life, with footage never seen publically before, by documentarian Todd Douglas Miller with “Apollo 11.”
When I had the chance to see a brand new documentary about Apollo 11, I jumped at the opportunity – in IMAX, no less – and I expected something well done. What I was not prepared for is the extreme visceral experience that Miller and his team bring to us.
The structure of “Apollo 11” is straightforward documentary filmmaking, beginning with the gigantic Saturn V rocket being slowly moved by a humungous tractor to Launch Pad A. The image is crisp and clear, setting up my hopes for the rest of this soup-to-nuts account, in myriad detail, of man’s first landing on the moon. Those hopes were met…and more.
Miller and his crew gained access to both NASA and the National Archives, and 70mm film footage of the launch and return of the three astronauts – flight commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz" Aldrin and command module pilot Michael Collins – to the safety of the earthly womb. There is no narration or title cards and this concise, visually stunning document of mankind’s greatest achievement does not need them.
The filmmakers deserve kudos for their incredible effort to collect the copious archival material and, then, assemble it into a documentary that, for its 93 minute ruin time, puts you there in the moment. The other amazing thing about “Apollo 11” is that it took 50 years to bring us this detailed view of that great event and the makers make it all brand new. I give it an A.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced to a joint session of congress his goal to send an American to the moon and safely return to Earth before the end of the decade. A little over eight years later, on July 16, 1969, the world held its breath for the launching of “Apollo 11.”
Director Todd Douglas Miller (“Dinosaur 13”) contacted the National Archives and Records Administration when he began his latest documentary and that resulted in an unexpected mother lode when they decided to look into the large format NASA material they knew they had. Eureka! 165 reels called the ‘65mm Panavision collection’ were found documenting NASA missions from “Apollo 8” through “Apollo 13,” over a third of which were devoted to “Apollo 11.”
Miller has used this pristine, richly colored footage wisely, letting it speak for itself. There is no narration. There are no talking heads. There is just a sterling, 93 minute recreation of one of mankind’s most miraculous technological feats from preparations at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to Houston’s mission control to the crowds of people who watched Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Connolly take off and return nine days later to onboard and outside the various components of Apollo 11 itself. Miller’s only additions are some simple black and white diagrams outlining various mission maneuvers and the powerful, sparingly used music (by “Dinosaur 13’s” Matt Morton) which accentuates the documentary’s tensest moments.
The first image we see, that of an enormous tractor slowly hauling the quarter acre launch pad and its rocket to its designated position, is amazing, its tank treads towering over the engineers who slowly walk in front of it. This is unlike anything we have ever seen before. But even more familiar images take on a new life here. We’ve all seen the bleachers for NASA launch guests, but here we see the in-his-prime Johnny Carson happily walking through in a plaid suit and LBJ greeting people from the stands. Thousands more line the coast in an Apollo 11 tailgate. A man holds up binoculars for a young girl. Another takes a sip of Busch from a lawn chair. An entire J.C. Penney parking lot is jammed with onlookers. The colors are so vibrant, the images so crisp, were it not for the fifty year-old fashions the images could have been shot yesterday.
The scope of the mission is revealed as a tracking shot going by banks of Mission Control engineers just keeps going, and going, and going, hundreds of men situated at computer monitors. Events we’ve been familiar with for decades gain new urgency as a team addresses a leaky valve during the countdown or a red error code flashes as the lunar landing module descends (and we hear how Neil Armstrong’s heart rate increased from 110 to 156 beats a minute). A television in a NASA lobby orients us in historical time, reporting on the Vietnam War and the aftermath of a tragedy in Chappaquiddick. We note the movie star handsomeness of mission control capsule communicator Bruce McCandless. We hear the three astronauts joke about their respective views from Columbia’s windows. We see a spinning tape player in the weightlessness of the capsule as “Mother Country” accompanies the astronauts back to Earth.
“Apollo 11” is only playing for one week in IMAX theaters before going wider in regular theaters. Try to see it on the biggest screen you can. (And if you have yet to see Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” it would make the perfect double feature.)
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