There are many wonderful documentary films, but all the average ones have conditioned me to shrink from documentaries: the slow opening text explainer, montages of still photos, droning real-people interviews/voiceovers, crappy music, filmed “reenactments,” ugh. Still when I heard the new Apollo 11 doc was going to feature unseen footage found in a National Archives warehouse and digitized, I became the core demographic for this film. I just prepared myself to endure all bad documentary movie things in exchange for a few super-cool moments of rocket ships and astronauts and maybe the Moon.
But Apollo 11 is wildly better than what I was expecting, in the best way possible. The entire film is made out of archival footage, seamlessly edited, all killer, no filler, using voices from the footage or coexisting sources of the event, such as the stentorian tones of news anchor Walter Cronkite speaking to a vast American television audience and setting up the idea of sending a rocket to the Moon, a 300-foot tall rocket weighing 6.5 million pounds, with a cargo of three crew members, a lunar lander, and a vehicle to get the astronauts back to Earth. Insanity.
The large-format footage of the completed behemoth Saturn V rocket on its assembly platform trundling toward the launch site was worth my price of admission, 6.5 million pounds-plus, slowly moving along on tank treads, with NASA personnel crawling under and around it like ants to immediately set the scale of the undertaking.
When I realized there wouldn’t be any text panel blackouts or cutaways to people who were sitting in front of a documentary camera remembering stuff, it might have been the biggest movie thrill I’ve experienced since I sat in a movie theater and watched the first two minutes and 25 seconds of Star Wars in 1977. The entire nine-day mission is presented along with perfectly minimal animations detailing the terrifying physics and geometry required for a journey into space. Space! The Moon!
The launch sequence is gripping and overwhelming, while the controlled calm of the astronauts and ground controllers’ audio is contrastingly astounding, as are incidental remarks from ground control about ensuring that the spacecraft incrementally rotates to keep the heat from the Sun distributed evenly as the three astronauts sit in their tin can and their view of planet Earth recedes.
Watching the landing on the Moon as the elevation and fuel consumption figures tick off was incredibly stressful, and I wondered about my own pulse after the control center reported Armstrong’s heart rate topped out at around 150 when the lander set down. The footage of the spacecrafts docking to begin the trip back is also amazingly terrifying, realizing they only get one chance to connect the lander with the return vehicle, on a precise amount of fuel. One chance.
Quiet evidence of the approaching antiquity of the age are the people incidentally captured on film, being themselves, not really very self-aware, not reacting the way people do today when they see a camera pointed in their direction, no mugging, no waving from the circa 1969 crowds in Florida, sitting on the ground near their parked cars and in VIP bleacher seats at a safe distance waiting for the launch, with glimpses of a few celebrities of the era, and a former president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, briefly seen glad-handing in the VIP stand with very little separating him from everyday citizens. It was a different time.
In the Houston control center, row upon row of of white-shirted, white-skinned engineers, the camera lingering on the relative oddity of a woman in the group, along with a sparse scattering of dark-skinned faces there to help put whitey on the Moon, MAN on the Moon, for all MANkind, it’s hard not to hear those phrases without them clanging now, 50 years later, along with the plainly-stated national pride, that America made it there first, for all of the people in the whole world, sure, the world, but America did it first, and planted a flag, on the Moon, and we see footage and hear the voice of John F. Kennedy, our most photogenic president, speaking at Rice University Stadium in Texas, eight years before the mission’s completion:
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.
Watching this film and listening to eventual arch criminal Richard Milhous Nixon sincerely and succinctly congratulate the returned astronauts, it’s hard not to think about the current state of the nation and wish for simpler times and the diversion of a trip to the Moon.
I cannot emphasize enough how incredible the footage is in terms of what you see compared to typical historic documentary footage. The 65 and 70mm large-format images are so clean and sharp you can’t help but think of Kubrick, but he had the final cut rights to his productions, and he’s famous for destroying all his unused footage.