“They were just a lot of people doing the best they could”
– “Mother Country” by John Stewart .
The United States will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the humankind’s greatest achievements this year: getting a man on the moon. For at least fleeting moments, NASA’s Apollo Program created a sense of unity and pride in America, and anyone with a pulse was glued to media reports throughout the week-long spaceflight of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. In the five decades since, NASA’s space program has more often captured the country’s attention in tragedy than trailblazing. Apollo 11 is a documentary that had two goals: to give new generations the thrilling feelings those who saw this momentous achievement firsthand had, and to honor the men and women behind the scenes who were essential to the mission’s success. It succeeded with both.
Most films related to the space program focus on, well, space. Whether it’s fictional like Gravity or based on real events like Apollo 13, the claustrophobic, one-false-move-and-we-die nature of spaceflight has brought fascination and excitement for decades. Of course, Apollo 11 goes above and beyond expectations. Seeing the liftoff on an IMAX screen was absolutely incredible, and the film of Armstrong and Aldrin actually landing on the moon was something I didn’t even know existed, and it was worth the price of admission for just those few minutes alone. This documentary gave a new level of appreciation for what they did in all of this new and fixed footage.
On the ground, while the three men were in space, even more work was being done to make sure the astronauts survive. Thanks to more rare footage, Apollo 11 gave most of the screen time to these (mostly) men in the control rooms, constantly doing calculations, collaborating on next steps, and drinking a lot of coffee.
Apollo 11 managed to make the conversations between ground and space fascinating even when it was difficult to understand exactly what they were saying (and considering I struggled in precalc, the calculations wouldn’t have made any more sense if they had clear communication lines). Hearing all of the communication gave the impression that everything was unfolding right on the screen.
Apollo 11 and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old portend an exciting new era of documentary for fans of the genre or fans of history in general. We seem to have reached a point where filmmakers can recover and completely transform aging firsthand film into something worth showing on a big screen. The use of real first-person narratives as opposed to contemporary narration or cuts of people talking to the camera created a more immersive experience. The filmmakers could have hired a narrator to talk over the images, or had people in a studio to explain everything, but that would have taken us out of the experience.
With They Shall Not Grow Old, the intent was to take an event involving millions of faceless men and shrinking it down to a personal level. Apollo 11 effectively did the opposite; the documentary emphasized the men and women behind the scenes equally to the three men in space. Most people recognize the names Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, but I’d bet a lot of people who weren’t around for this mission would struggle to place Michael Collins as the third man on the mission, let alone the capsule communicator and flight directors who helped the astronauts nearly every second of their journey.
Director Todd Douglas Miller really brought this point home through the final TV broadcast the astronauts made from space, where they took time to thank everyone who made the ship, did the calculations, and stayed with them through the journey to get them to and from the moon safely. The one song in the film, the 1969 folk track “Mother Country” by John Stewart, further brought the patriotic point home.
One minor critique I had for Apollo 11 was the overuse of score to heighten emotions. When something on screen was happening as dramatic as landing on the moon, the crescendos were overkill- the audience would feel the emotions without it. I also think it did a disservice to the fascinating communication between Houston and the astronauts, occasionally being so loud that you could not even try to decipher what was being said.
If you saw First Man last year (which not enough people did), or have done your own research on the Apollo program, Apollo 11 will not bring any new revelations. This documentary is a pure, uncontroversial look at one of the brightest moments in NASA’s history. It didn’t consider any questions about the cost and benefit of the program, nor discuss the men who lost their lives in the lead up to Apollo 11, nor confront crazy conspiracy theories. But for those who go to movies for uncomplicated escapism, what could be better than getting that with a little history lesson tacked on? I would love to see follow-ups with unseen and cleaned up versions of the NASA missions to the moon that followed.