Best Documentary

Apollo 11 – Film Review

Apollo 11 – Film Review
by Diana Perez Garcia

Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Cast: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Michael Collins

Opens on Friday June 28th

At the close of Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 the screen fades to black before getting populated with the names of all of those involved in the 1969 Moon landing mission. In a matter of seconds hundreds of names, in minute white print, spearheaded by those of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, make the shape of the number eleven: it is a sobering and effective reminder of the staggering amount of effort and intelligence poured into making JFK’s 1963 promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s a reality.  This documentary brings this momentous feat in the space race to the big screen through seamless and elegant assembly of archival footage restored to pristine quality. The result is an engrossing piece of film making that can claim documentary status in its purest sense as it is constructed with the sole use of historical print, dispensing with the staple voice over and talking heads of more conventional documentary work. Apollo 11 has been released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of this eponymous mission and, in a sense, it is as if Miller had bowed off centre stage to pay homage to the men and women involved in making the Moon landings a reality. Miller’s decision to let the footage speak for itself also has the effect of underscoring this tremendous achievement without cheapening it with unnecessary fanfare.

Viewers of previous work centred on the space race will nod in recognition of the rows of men (for those who worked on the mission were overwhelmingly male, a fact that like all others in this documentary, glides by our eyes unglossed) dressed in the inevitable NASA control room uniform of short-sleeved white shirt and black tie that we have seen in countless films before. A few of these men are singled out by name and role as the film moves through the mission: they are those who were in charge of managing several teams involved in the carefully calibrated stages of Apollo 11 and particularly those in charge of communicating with the men in the spacecraft. Throughout, they appear cool-headed and inscrutable and even though we now know that there were a number of difficulties, including a repeated error on the computer system shortly before the actual landing, they betray none of the pressurised emotion we have come to associate with such situations in dramatic work centred on this period. Such emotion, moving from anticipation, through to delight, to final awe is instead reflected in the numerous close-ups of members of the public camped near the launch pad waiting for the rocket take-off in the opening moments of the film. As they stand in their sundresses and Bermuda shirts, eyes fixed on the sky protected by sunglasses to stave off the scorching Florida sun, their faces betray the incommensurable impact of this event. Miller, who also edited the film, moves back and forth from control room, to the environs of Cape Canaveral, to the spacecraft and then lunar module, to the final Moon landing, to bring to the viewer all visible aspects of the nine-day mission. He also uses split screen to convey the complexity of different stages of the operation. The palpable labour of love behind the assembly of all of this footage contributes to make Apollo 11 an admirable editing achievement.

The lunar landings are vividly lodged in our collective memory and are indeed living history for those amongst us who were on Earth to witness them in their original broadcast but their vivid presentation in this film has the effect of underscoring the difference that fifty years have made, not just to how we view the universe and our place in it, but the manner in which we contemplate ourselves. A global self-awareness was born out of our contemplation of Aldrin’s iconic Apollo 8 “Earthrise” shots showing our planet as a beautiful but fragile looking sphere suspended in the vast darkness of space. This vision, combined with the pictures of the “magnificent desolation” of the Moon that he took upon landing, arguably had a profound effect on our collective psyche, perhaps akin to that experienced by the first people who contemplated and recognised their faces as their own in a reflection. At a technological level, Apollo 11 also crystalized a shift that couples this mission with the birth of software engineering and, along with the many contributions to space exploration of the Soviet Union, the very idea of geo-positioning that marks our daily existence and communication. In avoiding explanatory voice overs and interviews, Miller has shrewdly given his audience the opportunity to soak in this world about to be altered by the kind of change announced by the Moon landings in the cusp of this very transformation.

Through Apollo 11 the only narration comes in the shape of deep-voiced contemporary male broadcasters. Miller has been as judiciously sparse in his use of music as elsewhere, and Matt Morton’s score ebbs in and out of the narrative to add to the dramatic shifts in the mission, never interfering with the quieter more reflective material recovered by Miller. This allows the viewer to take in the rhetoric of a culture permeated with the kind of old fashioned solemnity that may now strike us as naïve. One broadcaster describes the astronauts as carrying “burdens and hopes” “on behalf of all mankind”; another biblically surmises that “not since Adam has any man experienced such solitude as Michael Collins”. Such pronouncements not only betray the pervasive insistence on humanity’s unity in the midst of Cold Ward division that characterised both American and Soviet propaganda from this era but also a culture that could still strike a comfortable balance between religious sentiment and scientific advancement. Following the successful landing, the astronauts speak to a pre-Watergate Nixon who deems the communication the “most historic telephone call ever made from the White House”, unaware of how his own darker conversations would change his own and American political history three years later.

Although Collins, Aldrin, and Armstrong are, needless to say, central to the mission, the film also pulls back from unnecessarily emphasising their contribution or exploring their individual psyches or travails. Anyone wanting individual psychological or emotional insight should look elsewhere and stream Damien Chazelle’s First Man instead. Similarly, those looking for a detailed interpretation of the many technical challenges that were overcome in the lead up to and during the Apollo 11 mission may find more satisfaction in the BBC Radio series of podcasts 13 Minutes to the Moon. The power of Apollo 11 resides in its confidence in the interest of the original material and in how it allows viewers to vicariously partake of this significant event. The old adage has it that when the wise man points at the Moon, the fool looks at the finger. Miller’s film resolutely guides our eyes to the Moon.



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