July 20th 2019 will mark exactly 50 years since the first Moon landing. To put things into perspective, man first did a powered flight back in 1903, and then crossed the Atlantic by plane in 1927; that means it’s only been slightly less time between 1969 and now than it was between Lindbergh’s historic Transatlantic solo flight and Neil Armstrong becoming the first human to set foot on the surface of another world.
The rate of progress in the 20th Century is quite remarkable, given that at the start of it, humanity had yet to slip the surly bonds of earth, yet within the span of an average lifetime we’d not only sent a man up into space, but also far beyond the confines of our home planet. In the five decades that have passed since then, ambition appears to have become somewhat stifled, and it feels like we’ve become content to float around in low Earth orbit. We’re like the proverbial dog who catches the car he’s been chasing, and doesn’t seem to know quite what to do afterwards.
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Although there’s been talk of sending men (and the first women) to the Moon within the next decade or so, picking up where we left off, there doesn’t look to be much momentum, or any clear impetus to do so. Back in the 1960s, the brave astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs were the original Cold Warriors, fighting to gain supremacy over the Soviet Union on the High Frontier; there was a race to space, and it was a war of ideologies, with America seemingly on the back foot from the very start. It became a great national endeavour, with a clear timeframe given of landing a man on the Moon and getting him back home safely before the decade’s end.
Apollo 11 brings us the story we think we know, but tells it to us in a way that makes it feel fresh and new; the seemingly well known is now unfamiliar, and it shakes us out of our complacency over what is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. It’s a feat which is worth not only recalling but also lauding, and director Todd Douglas Miller presents us with a brand new way of looking at those few days in July 1969 which changed humanity for all time.
The production of this documentary looks to have been almost as gargantuan a feat as the actual Apollo program itself – sifting through more than 11,000 hours of audio recordings, along with hundreds of hours of visual material, and not only piecing it all together, but condensing it down into a coherent narrative which can be told in 93 minutes. The production process has managed to uncover previously unseen 70mm footage of the launch and recovery of Apollo 11, giving us the opportunity to rediscover the whole story, and see it as if for the first time, as it genuinely brings us something new and distinctive, setting it apart from other retrospectives.
Many similar features usually give us a commentary, with the narrator (usually a well-known voice) making all manner of earnest proclamations about the gravity (no pun intended) of the mission, trying to build up drama and tension. The thing is, it really doesn’t need that – the story is so dramatic on its own merits that it doesn’t need any outside assistance. There’s also no requirement to have a load of ‘talking heads’ thrown in there for retrospective analysis, for much the same reason.
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This is where Apollo 11 wins out, as it totally dispenses with the services of a narrator, and uses only contemporary interviews and news material, giving it the chance to show us what it was like at the time, not through the prism of years hence. It feels startlingly like it had been released actually at the time, rather than half a century after the fact, as well as pleasingly like an old school documentary, in that it actually documents, and lets the story speak for itself, rather than needing it spoon-fed or explained to you, and by by doing so, it credits the audience with more than a modicum of intelligence.
Some of the 70mm material is restored so lovingly that it brings the tale to life like never before. Usually, archive footage can be so washed out and diluted in its look, it distances us from what we’re seeing, as it immediately feels old and dated; here, all the colours are so vibrant, and at times seemingly free of any grain, it feels as if it’s been filmed only yesterday, instead of looking as though it’s been run through an Instagram filter. This gives a true sense of immediacy, and helps to draw us into the unfolding story, engaging the viewers and connecting them to the material more strongly than ever.
It’s surprising to see the use of CCTV from the launch pad, which again takes us out of the standard approach of documentary making, as it doesn’t feel as if the story is frozen in time or preserved in aspic, but is instead more relatable and approachable, by giving us this new approach to telling an old story. Showing both the launch and the landing in real time also focuses us firmly on the drama, particularly as we see the descent only from the perspective of the camera which was mounted on the Lunar Excursion Module, rather than the more familiar technique of cutting to the anxious faces of those in Mission Control – it makes us feel part of the event.
The launch is also surprising, through the sound design being constructed in such a way that the thunderous rumble from the mighty Saturn V engines shakes the whole auditorium, and it can be felt pounding in your chest, again giving the impression of you actually being there. The score for the movie by Matt Morton deserves a special mention, as it’s been written to be played only on instruments available at the time, such as Moog synthesisers, Mellotrons, and Hammond organs; this gives us some tone pieces which underscore the mood, without swamping or overshadowing the unfolding action, and fits perfectly with what we’re seeing.
Not just one for space aficionados, but for all humanity – everyone needs to see what happens to be a perfect, timely reminder of just how giant a leap this really was. A genuine highlight of this year’s cinematic releases.