Though there have been plenty of other movies and TV specials about the first moon mission, we haven’t seen anything quite like the wondrous new documentary Apollo 11.
Utilizing previously unseen footage from the eight-day period during which the mission took place in July 1969, director Todd Douglas Miller has crafted a meticulous and often thrilling recreation of mankind’s most daring feat. Unlike last year’s excellent First Man, which tells a more personal story centered around lead astronaut Neil Armstrong, this film is much more straight-forward about the specifics of the spaceflight.
Miller, who is also credited as the sole editor, eschews typical documentary conventions like having the events explained to us by historian talking heads or a narrative voiceover. Instead, he cuts the footage in a way that even people who don’t know the ins and outs of space travel would be able to understand. When the astronauts are discussing upcoming tactical maneuvers with NASA headquarters, we’re shown diagrams that clearly demonstrate what the crew is about to attempt. What’s most impressive about this aspect in particular is that even though these visual depictions mirror what a teacher might draw on a chalkboard, the film never feels like a boring school lecture.
Given that all of the documentary’s footage is taken from 50-year-old film, one may expect that the look of this movie would be quite dated. But the images are full of new life with the aid of digital restoration. Thanks to Miller’s direction, the film has a cinematic immediacy to it from the first frame, which begins by highlighting the massive scale of the operation as the camera glides up the six-million-pound rocket ship. There are also gorgeous shots, like one from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet awaiting the trio of astronauts, that feel both incredibly modern and indelibly timeless at the same time.
With the aid of Matt Morton’s majestic musical score, unbroken shots of the crew completing the most challenging portions of the mission are made even more awe-inspiring than they would be otherwise. When the frame is divided into several split-screens that feature various teams working within mission control, the pulsing synth-driven soundtrack gives appropriate urgency to their efforts.
The rest of the audio is filled out expertly by sound designer Eric Milano, who poured through thousands of hours of uncatalogued audio recordings to capture the most essential pieces of dialogue from this landmark event.
When we think of the moon landing, typically Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come to mind first, but this documentary is a reminder of the hundreds of talented individuals whose hard work made this dangerous mission a success. One such example is found in an early tracking shot that depicts the seemingly endless rows of computing equipment and scientists dedicated to achieving the impossible.
Thanks to the efforts of Miller and everyone behind the production of Apollo 11, their work can now be seen through a new lens of clarity and preserved for future generations looking for inspiration once again.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, is a new horror film from Get Out director Jordan Peele about a family of four whose vacation is upended by a diabolical group of home invaders.
Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, tells the harrowing true story of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks from the perspective of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
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