‘Apollo 11,’ a Movie About the Moon Landing That Doesn’t Feature Crying Ryan Gosling
Immersive is too simplistic a term for the astonishing work on display in Apollo 11. A revelatory evocation of the United States’ epochal 1969 lunar landing, this IMAX-ready science doc turns a time-capsule cache of archival material into a virtual time machine. First Man and Apollo 13 ain’t got nothing on this flick. Fly me to the moon, indeed!
APOLLO 11 ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Todd Douglas Miller
Running time: 93 min.
The folks at NASA offered director Todd Douglas Miller a glorious opportunity: come into our vaults and sift through newly-discovered, pristine and remarkably unseen and unused 65mm large-format footage of the Apollo 11 mission. And if that weren’t enough, they also offered him 11,000 hours of raw audio recordings. The chatty soundtrack stitches together mission control communications with the astronauts, interviews with scientists, candid conversations and unguarded moments. “You are there” only begins to describe the experience.
But don’t expect wonky play-by-plays from talking heads. Apollo 11 won’t spoon-feed audiences the space program’s specific historical beats. No one pauses to get granular, and no one reflects. This film is all thrust, all the time.
That’s a flaw of sorts. Middle-aged physics majors and Baby-Boomer astro-buffs will lap up this geektastic celebration of the space program that effectively defined their late-’60s childhoods. With rote precision, those geriatrics can probably recite the audacious challenges staring down Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and all the rest of the Right Stuff pilots who strapped themselves to the top of a skyscraper-sized roman candle.
Anyone born after the fact, though, will be a little bit lost in space. Yes, the fundamentals are self-evident: a rocket launches a group of men off the earth towards the moon. They land. Then they fly back. Kids, feel free to fill in the blanks. What more do you want to know, anyway? You want knowledge, go read a science book. Apollo 11 isn’t informational. It’s visceral. Besides, just look at those machines. Nuts and bolts, people. Might as well be spit and tape. Looking back, the state-of-the-art technology seems dangerously primitive.
Miller starts with crystal-clear, fine-grain, wide-screen color images of Cape Canaveral crowds witnessing the herculean propulsion of a spacecraft into earth orbit. Once in space, the screen switches to low-grade, black-and-white video footage that carries through to the lunar landing. Then come eye-popping Kodachrome photographs of the moon, still stunning after a half century. And throughout it all is a disembodied, calm-but-breathless Greek chorus of terrestrial voices, clearly on the edge of their seats and in thrall to every single minute. The static-tinged tension—and excitement—is infectious.
As a filmmaking exercise, Apollo 11 traffics in the extraordinary. Here’s a movie sculpted entirely from pre-existing material that was never intended to be edited together in quite this way. On a certain level, Miller’s work is downright experimental. The myriad photochemical and electromagnetic formats create an almost impressionistic collage of the history-making journey. A sprinkling of helpful graphics pop up to give just-enough-but-hardly-expository context. You have to love the delightfully randy terminology. Time for the Trans-Lunar Injection? Sounds good. Ready for the Lunar Orbit Insertion Burn? Okay, then. Even the technical lingo is flush with poetic arousal.
The drama comes in unexpected ways, usually with a stoic anxiety. Witness the four-minute-long single-shot sequence of the lunar module descending towards the face of the moon. A small, unadorned readout in the lower-left corner shows the descending altitude and the remaining fuel. Both tick down with scientific accuracy, sometimes slowing, sometimes quickening, sometimes flashing red, as the moon’s surface grows disturbingly larger. And then you notice that the land is suddenly rushing closer while the fuel counter rapidly spins down to zero. Are they going to crash? Will they run out of gas? What’s most remarkable is that, even though Apollo 11 tells a set-in-stone story, the film still makes it seem like anything could happen.