‘Apollo 11’ brings back awe of 1969 moon landing

The documentary's never-before-seen footage conjures up the transcendent hopefulness of the mission.

Courtesy of Neon/CNN Films
Buzz Aldrin in 1969 in 'Apollo 11.'

One of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had as a film critic was talking with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin about the documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon” after a Sundance screening years ago and then walking out into the cold night air and looking up at the moon and thinking, “That guy actually set foot on that thing.” I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Aldrin, or any of his astronaut cohorts, and know that my footprints were planted on that disc in the sky.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, first manned moon landing, the documentary “Apollo 11” brings back once more the awe of that event. What makes this film different from numerous other such movies is that, in many instances, it utilizes footage never before seen publicly. Director Todd Douglas Miller made a phenomenal discovery: Troves of newfound, soundless 65-mm and 70-mm footage of the mission, originally housed in a NASA storage facility, were accidentally located in the National Archives along with about 11,000 hours of uncategorized audio recordings that had to be painstakingly synced-up to the shots. 

The footage was not cropped, as is the case with so many similar documentaries, and the films were restored and scanned at the highest resolution possible. The result, according to the filmmakers, is the highest-quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage available. This is not merely a technical achievement. The startling crispness of the imagery makes the experience of watching this film almost like seeing the mission – from pre-liftoff to post-recovery, from the launch control center at Cape Canaveral to the mission control room in Houston – for the first time. The familiar becomes newly minted. (The film is being screened in both regular and Imax formats.)

Some of the footage is a revelation, and none more so than the scenes of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Aldrin suiting up for the moon shot. We’re right there with them in the room. With a hint of puckishness, Aldrin plays to the camera. He’s always the easiest to read in these moments; he seems to be truly enjoying himself and not simply warding off his fears. Later, in orbit, he jokes with the flight controller that floating in space reminds him of being in a revolving restaurant.

For those who have seen “First Man,” with Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, it’s inevitable that memories of that movie, and Gosling’s psychologically closed-off characterization, would come into play here. From what we see of Armstrong in “Apollo 11,” it’s impossible to know what’s going on inside his head, except that, unlike Gosling, he does crack the occasional smile. The documentary made me realize once again how much I value the actuality of a filmed record such as this and how difficult it is for any dramatization to do justice to its stark reality. The only account of the mission that, for me, captures, and even transcends, this documentary is Norman Mailer’s masterful nonfiction book “Of a Fire on the Moon,” perhaps because his expressiveness as a prose stylist is on par with the power of the imagery and because he gets inside the philosophical and psychological momentousness of the occasion in a way that perhaps only a great writer can.     

Miller takes a far more conventional approach to the material, presenting the events chronologically and, except for some voice-overs from Walter Cronkite, avoiding any sort of narrative overlay or parade of talking heads. It’s a remarkably uncoercive presentation. He realizes that, given the forcefulness of the footage, any attempt to dictate how we view the events would be an egregious intrusion. 

The fact that, going in, we already know the outcome to the Apollo 11 mission does not detract from the film’s inherent suspense. At every stage, we, along with the astronauts and the NASA controllers, are confronted with the same dreaded alternative: What if anything should go radically wrong? That nothing did, that the film concludes on a high and prideful note, with a ticker-
tape parade down Chicago’s Michigan
Avenue, only reinforces the fright that was ever-present beneath all the well-wishes and techno talk.

Much of the commentary about this film has focused on the way the moon shot represented perhaps the last time the whole world was uplifted as one. This may be too nostalgic a view of that time, which, after all, was an era when the cold war and the space race were in full swing. Still, the transcendent hopefulness of the Apollo 11 mission strikes a necessary chord today. This was no Arthurian legend. It really happened. The transcendence it instilled, however fleeting, bears repeating. Grade: A- (Rated G.)

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