US | 2018 | Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
Logline: Documentary traces the first manned mission to the moon over its eight-day return journey in July 1969.
A tour-de-force of editing that captures a spectacular trajectory like nothing before or since; the Apollo 11 flight mission celebrates fifty years and in many ways its journey is even more astonishing now than it was then.
Todd Miller was given unprecedented access to around 11,000 hours of previously unreleased NASA materials, from 70mm, 35mm, 16mm, and videotape, including audiotapes of all the commentary and announcements from the event. America’s National Archives provided surrounding radio transmissions and additional media footage. By using only the recordings from that eight-day period, with the exception of some graphics to illustrate technical stats, such as time, velocity, and distance, and not using any actors/recreations or contemporary narration, Miller has produced a truly startling portrait, not only a stark and emotional celebration of the event, but a testament to the power of cinema verité.
Where as Damien Chazelle’s recent First Man biopic focuses on the entire career of astronaut Neil Armstrong leading up to and including the Apollo 11 mission, and takes two-and-a-half hours to do so, Miller is a succinct 90 minutes covering just the eight day mission, beginning with the awesome Saturn V rocket being slowly maneuvered toward its launch pad position and ending with part of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech about space exploration from 1961 as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins enter a 21-day regulatory quarantine having returned from the moon.
We all know how it transpired, the words of Armstrong as he touched down on the lunar surface, “This is one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”, are ingrained, especially for baby boomers and gen-x. Despite all this knowledge, the tension and excitement are genuinely palpable, as the mission control countdown approaches ignition, and there is even added suspense – I won’t spoil it – before lift off (was this ever revealed before?!)
The entire journey illustrates extraordinary details. One forgets just how complicated and awe-inspiring the logistics were in getting these men to the moon, the landing, the Eagle leaving the moon and docking again with Colombia, the spin around the moon to get the necessary speed up for the return home. Some of the stats boggle the mind: the Saturn V was the largest and heaviest rocket to ever travel into low Earth orbit, at lift off it produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust, and the command module reached a speed of nearly 25,000 miles per hour on re-entry.
Seriously, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more thrilling movie this year. That Miller has made a documentary that we all know the ending of, yet operates and resonates more effectively than most dramas or thrillers is a brilliant achievement. Much of this is due to the judicious and expert editing, but also the punctuation of Matt Morton’s fantastic electronic and percussive score. In an inspired decision he only used instruments available in 1969.
I can’t recommend Apollo 11 highly enough. One can’t deny the national pride Americans deservingly own, but the dodo expands beyond that in a beautiful way. If you’re a space nut this is essential viewing. If you’re one of the conspiracy theorists that believe the man landing was a hoax, this doco will blow your small little mind. Actually, and the irony isn’t lost on me, the restoration quality of the archival materials is so good the film looks like a Stanley Kubrick movie with his pristine, high production values, or a David Fincher movie for a contemporary comparison.
Quite simply, Apollo 11 is the perfect time capsule, the ultimate date stamp, and a very strong contender for my favourite film of the year.