Updated: Feb 8, 2020
The Apollo 11 moon landing is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. In July of 1969, two men stepped foot on Earth’s moon. A lot has been said about this event and there have been several movies depicting it (including last year’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man). The documentary Apollo 11 does not approach it in a historical way. It treats it as something unfolding right before our eyes. It begins on the day of the launch and ends just after the astronauts returned to Earth. It consists entirely of archive footage, with nothing that did not take place during that time period and no narration to add extra drama. There is no hindsight here. This is a pure look at what the men involved in the mission went through while it was going on. Visually and historically, it is a remarkable accomplishment.
Director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller has taken footage and audio from July 16-24 1969 and assembled it into a record of the mission. Apollo 11 (89 minutes, minus the end credits) shows what was occurring at mission control and on the ship, as well as more footage from the Apollo 11 spacecraft itself. He creates a full narrative of events, always making it clear what is happening and what the next step is. I know very little about spaceflight, however I was able to follow every step with no problem.
The footage from the flight was filmed via static cameras attached to the outside of the spacecraft. All we see is the enormity of space or the surface of the moon coming closer to the camera. To make sure viewers understand what they are seeing, graphics are put onscreen detailing what the astronauts intend to do and how they are progressing. It is simple, yet surprisingly successful at adding context to the visuals. Just the fact this stuff exists is incredible enough, but Miller found a way to make it much more powerful than a dry history lesson.
Hearing the words of the people responsible for this amazing moment as we see it come to fruition has a very humanizing effect. This was not the work of Gods. It was ordinary human beings who figured out how to land a manned ship hundreds of thousands of miles into space. And ordinary human beings who carried it out. They were excited, scared and focused. The explosion of exhilaration whenever a step is completed highlights both the adventurousness and anxiety of this massive undertaking.
Apollo 11 is a tremendous reminder of what human ingenuity can accomplish. It is also a reminder of the wonderful ability of the cinema to put a viewer in a specific time and place. I may not have been alive when this happened but, for an hour and a half, I felt like I was there. It is difficult for me to truly convey how watching this movie made me feel. So I will just say, if you are even remotely interested in this subject, go see Apollo 11, preferably on the biggest screen possible (I saw it in IMAX and it was breathtaking). It seems useless to compare this to other movies. This is more of an experience than a piece of entertainment. One I highly recommend.
4½ out of 5
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller