In probably the most famous, well-known speech of his short-lived occupancy of the White House, President John F. Kennedy promised to put a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. He didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – with an able assist from command module pilot Michael Collins – walk on the moon. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was also out of office, leaving Republican Richard M. Nixon to greet the astronauts when they safely returned to the Earth. And while the country, mired in a deeply unpopular war in Southeast Asia, the Civil Rights Movement and the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy the previous year for eight days, the Apollo 11 mission briefly united the United States. All of which has been well documented in books, TV, documentary, and feature-films (most recently, First Man), but director Todd Douglas Miller, working from hundreds of hours of unused, archived footage, sought to create the go-to, definitive, documentary testament to the Apollo 11 mission. Spoiler alert: Miller succeeds, sometimes spectacularly, in creating an immersive experience unlikely to be equaled in the near or distant future.
Sidestepping the traditional mix of archival footage, voiceover narration, and talking heads, Miller relies on the “direct cinema” approach, using the sights and sounds – with newscaster Walter Cronkite, once considered the “most trusted man in America” – as the early guide through the days and hours before the actual launch of the Saturn V rocket that would take Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to the moon and back. Miller opens Apollo 11 with the gigantic tank threads of the Saturn V launch pad. Dwarfing, the men walking alongside or in front of tank threads, the first shots of Apollo 11 help to convey the enormity of the task, both in terms of scale (a 300-foot rocket) and scale (resources, human and otherwise). Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins get their expected introductions, but only Armstrong gets a modest flashback (also archival footage) to convey the barest semblance of a backstory. (Damien Chazelle recreated many of those near iconic images for First Man). Aldrin and Collins are first seen slipping into their bulky spacesuits, each with the help of several men.
Before long, we’re treated to another semi-familiar series of shots: Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins leaving the space center, climbing into a van, and leaving for the launch pad, before cutting to mission control, anxious spectators waiting in the near distance, and back again to the astronauts riding the elevators to the top of the Saturn V rocket and the capsule that will take them to the moon. Repeated cutaways to a long-forgotten problem (a leaking valve) help both to up the level of tension and suspense and remind audiences of the inherently risky nature of the endeavor (where even the simplest mistake, problem, or equipment failure could end the mission and leave the astronauts stranded in space, on the moon, or worse). Even knowing the mission’s success does little to assuage the sense of potential doom that hangs over those early, pre-launch moments, but once the Saturn V successfully launches and breaks free of Earth’s gravity, Apollo 11 settles into an almost relaxed mode, allowing Miller to expertly weave shots of Mission Control, the astronauts, and shots of space taken by the astronauts themselves.
In addition to newly uncovered archival footage, much of it in pristine 70mm format perfect for IMAX screens, Miller relies on a curated mix of 35mm, 16mm, video footage, and still photos – along with a countdown clock on one corner of the screen – to give moviegoers as complete a sensory and informational experience as possible. Miller also relied on roughly 11,000 hours of audio for Apollo 11, allowing him and his team to sync newly uncovered footage with the audio. The mix of radio chatter, including the telltale beeps and “Roger” with often awe-inspiring footage certainly adds to the “you are there” immersive experience, but it also paradoxically helps to create a near trance-like state, somewhere between complete wakefulness and the first moments of sleep for most of Apollo 11’s running time. That’s certainly not meant as a knock or criticism, simply a heads-up observation for potential moviegoers before they decide to step into an IMAX theater (or the equivalent).