Like President Kennedy’s famous proclamation “We choose to go the Moon,” the new documentary Apollo 11 sounds simple in its purpose. Using archival footage and audio, director Todd Douglas Miller and his team recreate the voyage undertaken by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Within that simplicity, however, is an audacious technical marvel of imagery, sound, and nonfiction storytelling. There simply has never been a documentary quite like this. As an assembly of archival footage, it is a massive undertaking. In terms of cinema, it is breathtaking real-life thriller. This film will help ensure that no generation ever forgets just what was accomplished that fateful July.
To give you an idea of why this film is so special, let me share a story from the screening I attended. After the film was over, there was a Q&A with a moderator, the film’s director, and Neil Armstrong’s son Rick. Rick explains that it is standard for a writer, filmmaker, or journalist to show him an early version of what new Apollo 11 content they’re working on. In his telling, Rick went through the motions of seeing Miller’s early cut, at least until he found out that Rick had 70mm footage from Cape Canaveral. After that, he knew that this version of the story would be special. 70mm is the highest resolution celluloid currently available, and it has an ability to capture light/detail in a way that no other film stock quite can. In effect, some of Apollo 11 is a high-resolution account of what happened before and after the takeoff. You may have never seen the 1960s look so detailed and evocative. If you see the film in IMAX like I did, the sheer size/scale of the imagery will be immersive in a way that few films will ever achieve.
Miller’s approach is doggedly single-minded. There are no interviews in Apollo 11, nor are there talking heads. When we hear audio, it is usually from NASA engineers communicating with the astronauts, or the astronauts themselves. Sometimes we hear snippets from Walter Cronkite’s commentary of the event. This means that the film is like a time capsule, one that’s spliced together with modern editing techniques and restoration technology. Every detail of the journey is carefully explained, whether it’s how the lunar lander found a spot on the Moon’s surface, or how it built up enough velocity for the journey home. Miller frequently uses split-screen to illustrate what is happening: we can see the furrowed brows of dozens of engineers in Houston, while we also see the Earth get smaller and smaller from the spaceship’s point of view.
Some of the technical challenges behind Apollo 11 are dizzying to think about. You have to understand that many of the cameras did not record any audio, so it was up to Miller’s team to sync them up. There is a throwaway moment where we hear some radio chatter, and the man speaking syncs with the audio. That means that Miller’s team had to comb through thousands of hours of audio, find the correct three second snippet, and match it with the right throwaway B-roll footage. This is an impressive undertaking, but it would be immaterial if it did not culminate into a cohesive, stirring final version. Every cut, image, and recording is in service of communicating all the things that had to “go right” for Apollo 11 to be a success. By the time the astronauts return as heroes, the parades and celebrations barely seem like enough to celebrate what they accomplished.
The strongest parts of the film are when Miller abandons dialogue and lets the audience succumb to pure sensation or awe. During the launch, for example, the explosions and sound design are not a cacophony, but a symphony of fire and thrust. The landing of the lunar module is also breathtaking, just in a quieter way: there is a countdown of the craft’s elevation, so you can gauge how the Moon went from an abstraction to a tactile reality. Composer Matt Morton is instrumental to the film’s sense of spectacle and suspense. He composed all the music on period instruments, which is to say that he used synthesizers that were available while the mission was happening. The score has an propulsive feel, sort of like what we heard in Interstellar, except it is never meant to augment how feel about a character. There are no real “character,” period, so the music is all in service of the mission, just like everything else.
It’s been months since First Man came and left theaters, without much of the fanfare that Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling must have anticipated. By making the film largely about Neil Armstrong’s interiority, people and politicians were quick to dismiss Chazelle’s latest. Apollo 11 does not have that problem. It includes ample footage of the American flag, for one thing, and its nontraditional storytelling give it universal appeal. As President Nixon correctly pointed out, the voyage’s success is something that all humanity can share. Before the screening of Apollo 11 began, someone read a message from Buzz Aldrin, who commented (I’m paraphrasing), “This film gets as close to the real thing as anything I’ve experienced.” When go see Apollo 11, you’ll understand that he is not exaggerating.