Friday Film Review - "Apollo 11"

Mar 22, 2019

One small step for Man—one giant leap for the Friday Film Review? Well, you’ll have to decide about that.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins’ Apollo 11 flight and the first landing on the moon, director Todd Douglas Miller brings us his incredible documentary, “Apollo 11”.

An expansive work, "Apollo 11" covers the nine days of the actual mission, from the 16th to the 14th of July 1969 in amazing detail. Right from the beginning the viewer is pulled in by the palpable excitement and pulse pumping tension created by the on-screen action. From the tedious, slow crawl of the Saturn V rocket to the launch pad, to the final, jubilant retravel of the capsule at sea, the viewer is privy to the entire mission in an unusual and engaging fly-on the wall kind of way.

What makes "Apollo 11" a rather unusual documentary is its presentation. Rather than archival film footage interspersed with comments from those involved talking about the past, "Apollo 11" is told entirely in the present tense. Every conversation and action unfold before us just as it happened, starting with the launch preparations. This works because Miller uses the audio of the four rotating NASA public affairs officers to help narrate the film. These people were with the flight director at all times explaining what was happening to the media in real time. As the mission evolved in July 1969, so it does on the screen today. The viewer, therefore, is like a fly that is able to observe the astronauts, mission control, and the lucky portion of the general public, who was able to flock to the Cape Canaveral area to watch. NASA actually had cameras, whose sole purpose was to film the crowds as they watched and waited for the launch. These scenes are sure to have the older crowd reminiscing and the younger crowd asking about the hand-held technology being used and everyone is sure to groan about the fashions.

The film, "Apollo 11" is absolutely spectacular as is the incredible amount of painstaking work that went in to creating it. The original footage was shot in 16,65, and 70 mm film with the audio recorded separately. Equipment to scan the archival footage no longer exists, so it had to be recreated along with the necessary to convert it to digital format. Perhaps the most incredible feat in creating "Apollo 11" was Stephen Slater’s almost obsessive work to take the various pieces of film footage, search for visual cues and then plow through the trove of audio tapes and match them. Without this being done, Miller would have been forced to do a more conventional documentary, and viewers would be denied seeing this never before seen footage, and the humanity behind our quest to land on the moon. At one moment, viewer is able to hear the concern at Mission Control and in the lunar lander just minutes before the moon landing when an alarm, not understood by the astronauts, goes off. This is not something that the viewing public at the time knew about. There is also the moment when a controller, just reporting for work, asks a colleague if he’d heard the news about Ted Kennedy, a reference to the fatal car accident in Chappaquiddick. All of this helps to round out the connection between the public and the mission that this film creates in its first-person approach.

As someone who grew up watching all of NASA’s launches, starting with John Glenn, I found "Apollo 11" absolutely captivating. For the first time I was actually a part of the mission watching it as it happened, not forced to see it through the water downed eyes of the media. Even though I knew how the mission played out, director Miller’s approach gave it a whole new life and just like the rest of the audience I was spellbound.

In a day and age when technology changes in the blink of an eye and we have all come to take it for granted, "Apollo 11" gives the viewer a new appreciation of just how far we’ve come in a relatively short amount of time. It also makes one wish for another project such as getting to the moon. It was probably the last time there was one positive goal that so captured our imagination and brought everyone, around the world, together, to focus on that one small step.

While the grandeur of "Apollo 11" would be best enjoyed on a large screen, this movie is a must see by all, no matter the viewer’s age and no matter the size of the screen.

"Apollo 11" is an all too fast one hour and 33 minutes in length and rated G.