An absolutely overwhelming experience.
By Paul Mavis
In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, where man—two American men, Mr. Gosling…—first walked on the moon, Neon has released Apollo 11, the spectacular direct cinema documentary from director/editor Todd Douglas Miller. Utilizing never-before-seen 65mm large-format footage of the launch, including the crew, the techs, and the million-plus crowd gathered to watch, Apollo 11 keeps us on the edge of our seats as we experience the terrific suspense of those eight July days back in 1969, as first Neil Armstrong and then Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon, to then return home with command pilot Michael Collins to a heroes’ welcome. Apollo 11 is a nerve-rattling, exhilerating thrill ride (particularly when seen in the large IMAX format), as well as an emotional rediscovery of an aspect of unified American prowess, intellect, ingenuity, and willpower…one that seems all-too scarce nowadays.
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Apollo 11 was begun in 2016 by director/editor Todd Douglas Miller, apparently, as a “found footage” direct cinema documentary (no new interviews, talking heads, no narration, no recreations), one that would commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s first “man on the moon” mission (Miller had previously directed a doc on 1972’s Apollo 17, the last manned misson to the moon). An encounter with British archivist Stephen Slater further expanded Miller’s project, when Slater showed how he synched up grainy 16mm footage inside NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston, to existing audio tapes of various Apollo launches.
However, Miller’s documentary took a turn towards genuine historical significance when, under his guidance, NASA staff members discovered a large collection of pristine, unprocessed large-format 65 mm film of the launch, Mission Control operations, and the capsule recovery aboard the USS Hornet, all at the National Archives and Records Administration. Originally held in storage, and then transferred to and forgotten at the National Archives, some of this 65mm footage was used in Theo Kamecke’s 1971 documentary, Moonwalk One (the vast crowd scenes…which are marvelous, and often amusing glimpses of 1969 America). However, the wide image was cropped for a 35mm transfer and projection. According to sources, NASA ditched all this footage because it was too normal. They were only interested in film that depicted problems with launches—any film documenting successes like Apollo 11 was either forgotten about or, incredibly, in some cases, thrown away.
During their search of the archives, Miller and his team also uncovered a mammoth 11,000-plus hours of audio recordings—most never heard by the public and thought long-lost by NASA. They detailed conversations between 60 key mission personnel during the Apollo 11 launch, including ground-to-space communications, and vice-versa, communications that gave an astonishingly accurate second-by-second account of the launch and eight day journey. Miller’s production team digitally cleaned up the audio, coded it, transcribed it, and then synched it with the newly-found 70mm footage, as well as available 35mm and 16mm film, to create a remarkable true document of the Apollo 11 mission (all of the existing film was also digitally scanned, including 8k resolution on the 70mm footage).
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I was four when Apollo’s Lunar Module Eagle landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon (with pilot Michael Collins watching carefully from above in the orbiting Apollo Command and Service Module Columbia. I’d like to think I remember seeing the fuzzy, contrasty live TV shots of Armstrong descending to the lunar surface (my parents often talked about watching that momentous occasion)…but I’m sure I’m only remembering the countless times the footage was subsequently shown on news shows and television specials.
To be honest, when I received the Neon press release for Apollo 11, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Was this doc just another retread of all the existing Apollo 11 footage, gussied up for the big screen? After reading interviews this past fall with dimwit Canadian actor Ryan Gosling, concerning the “global effort” that put American astronauts on the moon (in American rockets, designed by American techs, built by American workers, all of which were paid for with American taxpayer money), I had put Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary right out of my mind…as did countless potential ticketbuyers who ignored Gosling’s Neil Armstrong flop, First Man.
Good thing I took a second look at that invitation (free IMAX tickets are always an attention-grabber for poor writers…). From Apollo 11’s opening scene, showing the hulking, 114 feet wide Missile Crawler Transporter, inching along at 1 mph up Kennedy Space Center’s 3.5 mile long “Crawlerway” road, balancing the 363 foot high, 6.5 million pound Saturn V rocket to Launch Pad 39A, the movie’s initial sensory effect on the viewer is one of overwhelming power and might. This colossal, vastly expensive machine is being put into its place with agonizingly slow, surgical precision (the sound of those massive Missile Crawler treads crunching on Alabama and Tennessee river rock, laid seven feet thick, goes right through you, courtesy of the IMAX stereo system).
And at first, you’re not only incredulous at the rocket’s physical bulk, you’re dazed at the thought of how the thing was designed and built in the first place…and frankly at the prospect of what it’s meant to do: take three human beings and blast them away from Earth’s gravitational forces and into outer space. No wires. No nets. No giant rubber band.
The physical magnitude and obvious technological complexity of the rocket and the surrounding support “stack” towers, conveyed in crystaline, engulfing clarity by the curved 70mm IMAX projection, is nothing short of awe-inspiring, not just for the thing itself—the rocket—but on further reflection, for the persisting, unwavering will to shepherd time, men, and materiel (and money) to make this thing actually work. What gods we Americans must have looked like to the other countries of Earth—if only for a few hours and days in 1969—when the only physical world we know was not only conquered but escaped from…with the further capacity to have a man walk on another celestial body, before being safely brought home. All of that washed over me in just the first few short minutes of Apollo 11.
The rest of Apollo 11 is like a steadily-building suspense thriller, pulling the neat trick of making us breathless even though most of us (should) know that, of course, the launch, the voyage to the moon, the moon landing and walk, and the return home and splashdown, were all successful. In one of my favorite sequences, director/editor Miller creates a quiet, eerie tension, during the astronauts’ suiting-up countdown. Check out the difference between Aldrin’s light clowning, playing to the camera…and all-American winner Armstrong’s stone-cold, laser focus on the men attending his suit (NASA made the right decision about who should command this mission). Miller may step out of the direct cinema structure for just a moment here, creating a “flashback” of Armstrong’s thoughts during this moment, including pictures of his wife and children, but it’s beautifully done.
The launch itself is a mesmerizing, terrifying mixture of vertigo (there’s a nausea-inducing shot of the ride up the stack elevator), and unleashed (and barely controllable) energy, with the insane forces of the firing rockets glowing the bottom of the craft melty red, before the whole things climbs powerfully into space (you feel like you’re right under it as it rumbles and blasts away). With the use of a simple numbers graphic, showing the climbing speed of the rocket, along with composer Matt Morton’s intense, hypnotic “thump, thump, thump” soundtrack, we get another jolt—almost completely suggestive, too, since there was no movie camera bolted to the side of the rocket—as the rocket picks up speed, orbiting the Earth, in order to slingshot out into space.
As for the lunar landing and the moon walk, the actual footage of the touch down—gray and black and ghostly barren, with clouds of dust swirling about, the camera restricted to that narrow shot where we just see a part of the landing gear trying to find a place to rest—is the opposite of the sound and fury launch…but no less arresting. Indeed, the subsequent lunar walk sequence was, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, profoundly “otherworldly,” with those oddly frightening shots of Armstrong staying very close to the Eagle’s ladder vaguely unsettling in some way (something about being able to see his face clearly now in that helmet creeped me out).
I also was taken with the realization that as Apollo 11’s mission played out, and the stakes got higher for the astronauts’ personal survival, the equipment got smaller (the Eagle looks shockingly gimcrack in those docking scenes, like it was hammered together with spare parts in shop class, while the space suits looked vulnerable in their unwieldly bulkiness). On the massive IMAX screen, the desolate terror of what it must have been like to be walking around on that sterile, godforsaken rock, with only some cockamamie suit protecting you from the black void at the horizon, was brought home with rather shocking force (must just be me, though—those guys sounded pretty happy to be there).
Apollo 11’s return home seems truncated; the lunar docking scene is another nail-biter…but who expected such violence as the Eagle smacked into Columbia with a crash (in the sci-fi epics, ships always dock with a little “hish” sound, followed by the clicking of two magnets together)? And the splash down sequence is over too quickly (there’s a cool shot of the chutes deploying after the capsule has entered the atmosphere, but that’s about it). Those are, however, small quibbles. Drunk on all those 70mm shots of average Americans sweating it out in the Florida heat to see the launch, I wanted a whole lot more of that post-splashdown fun, like the ticker tape parades and the isolation tank (subtitles for some of the more garbled audio transmissions would have helped, too—maybe we’ll get both in the Blu-ray release).
But again: minor protests. Apollo 11 not only thrills you like a rollercoaster ride, it brings back to life an exceedingly brief moment in the American timeline where brash and wholly warranted confidence in our technological superiority created a miraculous, quantum leap forward for us as a (mostly) unified nation. If only that could happen again.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.