Apollo 11: Pretty Up and Walking Good, by David Bax
If you’re looking for the first review of Todd Douglas Miller’s new documentary Apollo 11 not to mention Damien Chazelle’s First Man, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It’s impossible not to think of last year’s well-received but still underappreciated Neil Armstrong biopic while watching Miller’s film, and not just because Armstrong is a major “character” this time too. Apollo 11, just like First Man, contains moments that humanize the astronauts, like a joke about the slowly spinning space capsule being like “one of those revolving restaurants.” But the most striking and memorable bits are the ones that let the men up above the atmosphere remain as unknowable to us as they were to the millions who watched them on television or, for a lucky few, from picnic blankets and atop cars in Cape Canaveral. Apollo 11 wants to remind us that going to the moon is not only something a handful of scientists and pilots did. It’s something we did, as Americans and as citizens of the planet.
Essentially a found footage documentary, Apollo 11 is constructed almost entirely from audio and 65MM footage recorded by NASA of the mission that put the first men on the moon’s surface. But if it were just an artifact—a curio—it would be, at best, a TV special. While some moments do approach that sense of nostalgia (Johnny Carson walking to his VIP perch to watch the launch in person, for instance), Miller has aimed higher. Apollo 11 is as vital and electric a testament to discovery and collective spirit as you’re going to find.
In addition to the shockingly well preserved 65MM footage, Miller has gathered some comparatively grubby video and a handful of still photos from the time. The only new imagery is the occasional bit of very rudimentary black and white animation illustrating the spacecraft’s maneuvers tens of thousands of miles from where any camera would have been able to find an objective position from which to observe them. This economy, so at odds with the excessively busy mode of 21st century mainstream documentary filmmaking, gives a respect to the imagery that makes it feel almost holy.
Without unnecessary adornment, each stage of the mission seems able to take its time. Of course, that’s not literally true. Apollo 11 has a surprisingly brief runtime for a movie that encompasses the final month or so of an endeavor that took nearly a decade. Yet, compared to most dramatizations of such events, Miller seems reverently patient, especially in the film’s best section, the hours leading up to the launch, where he leaves Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins alone in the cockpit and instead jumps back and forth from mission control to the gathering crowd of eager onlookers.
That lengthy amount of time spent with civilians is just one part of Miller’s larger goal of contextualization. It’s fascinating to realize that NASA employees would be listening to news reports out of Vietnam during the mission or that the nation’s attention was drawn away from the trip to the moon by the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a passenger in Senator Ted Kennedy’s car.
It’s sobering to be reminded that powerful people continued to harm less powerful people while the human race raised the bar on exploration but Miller’s intent is not to harsh our patriotic buzz. The opposite is true, in fact. His open eyes want to take in the contributions of everyone. Appropriately for an account of a taxpayer-funded mission, Apollo 11 is a strikingly democratic movie. It spends less time exalting the heroes we already know and more time encouraging us to consider that someone we’ve never heard of crafted the model versions of the rocket and capsule that were necessary for reference. Someone transported the rocket out onto the launchpad. Hell, someone even had to gas up the vehicle that carried it. Apollo 11, the movie, reminds us that Apollo 11, the mission, was no miracle or feat of individual perseverance. It was brought to fruition through the efforts, beliefs and contributions of the people of this country, each and every one of them a mere earthling.