There have been multiple documentaries and dramatisations of the Apollo project, like Al Reinert’s ‘For All Mankind’, the HBO television miniseries ‘From The Earth To The Moon’, and Damian Chazelle’s ‘First Man’. So, what does ‘Apollo 11’ have to add to what we’ve already seen?
The new documentary from director Todd Douglas Miller (‘Dinosaur 13’) focuses on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, the first spaceflight to land humans on the Moon. The film consists almost solely of archival footage (there are a few retro animations), including 70mm film that was previously unreleased to the public.
In May 2017, cooperation between Miller and archivist Stephen Slater’s production team, NASA and the National Archives and Records Administration resulted in the discovery of the unreleased 70 mm footage capturing the launch and recovery of Apollo 11. The large-format footage includes scenes from Launch Complex 39, spectators present for the launch, the launch of the Saturn V rocket, the recovery of astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins and the Apollo 11 command module, and post-mission efforts aboard the USS Hornet. The documentary includes this footage alongside conventional footage from 35 and 16 mm film, still photography, and closed-circuit television footage. There is a wealth of material here - the production team cataloged a staggering 11,000 hours of audio recordings and hundreds of hours of video. Incredibly, Miller and his team have turned all that footage into a coherent and exhilarating narrative.
The images from the aforementioned archives look startlingly pristine. From the criss-cross of boot prints in the lunar dust to Neil Armstrong’s watery gaze after first landing, it's a remarkable record of a remarkable moment in human history.
Miller's conception of the film was centred on a direct cinema approach - similar in many respects to the cinéma vérité genre, direct cinema was characterised initially by filmmakers' desire to directly capture reality and represent it truthfully, and to question the relationship of reality with cinema. ‘Apollo 11’ contains no voiceover narration or interviews beyond what was available in the contemporary source material, similar to Asif Kapadia’s documentary ‘Senna’, which depicted the life and death of Brazilian motor racing champion Ayrton Senna. There’s also a minimum of on-screen text - mainly to identify who’s who, and to provide some basic numerical data about time, distances, and so on.
‘Apollo 11’ will make you gasp at its sense of scale. Rockets were toweringly huge. The crowds watching the launch were enormous. The distance between the astronauts and mission control back in Houston, Texas was unimaginable. We watch and listen as a radio communicator records the three astronauts’ heart rates (three glowing tadpoles wriggling along a black computer monitor) during the launch sequence - Collins and Armstrong’s were both well over 100, but Aldrin’s was surprisingly just 86, which was pretty much a normal resting rate.
The images from the aforementioned archives look startlingly pristine. From the criss-cross of boot prints in the lunar dust, to Neil Armstrong’s watery gaze after first landing, it's a remarkable record of a remarkable moment in human history.
‘Apollo 11’ also goes out of its way to evoke the era in which it was originally shot. There’s genuine interest and engagement in the voices of network TV anchormen like Walter Cronkite; in another scene, the controllers gossip about the Chappaquiddick scandal engulfing the Kennedy clan.
Matt Morton’s score, recorded using instruments available in 1969, shifts between coolly meditative during the astronauts’ initially calm journey to growing urgency when they're fretting over potentially fatal obstacles like fuel shortages.
With so much crystal-clear recorded footage of the moon landing available, the story of ‘Apollo 11’ feels more like a time-travelling thriller and less like a conventional documentary. It’s a virtuoso feat of editing, and awe-inspiring in a way that rescues that phrase from cliché. We're not so much hearing what happened in the past as seeing it happen before our eyes.