Size is everything when it comes to Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller’s definitive documentary about man’s maiden trip to the moon, which uses newly discovered footage to give audiences an unprecedented and jaw-dropping view of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins’ pioneering voyage. From the enormity of that trio’s feat, to the mammoth sights and sounds on display, to—just as crucially—the massive effort that went into bringing this non-fiction film to life, it’s a wondrous and graceful curatorial masterpiece, and one best experienced in IMAX (in which it’ll have a one-week run beginning March 1) or, short of that, on the biggest screen you can possibly find when it debuts in wide release on March 8.
On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s famed flight, it’s a film that lives up to the sheer awesomeness of its subject matter.
Having disingenuously stoked outrage over First Man’s supposed lack of patriotic zeal, Marco Rubio and the right-wing hordes will find little to crow about with regards to Apollo 11, which is awash in American flags and pride at the nation’s accomplishment. Nonetheless, that’s merely a side note to the real focus of Miller’s documentary—namely, the endeavor itself, which it recounts via imagery so breathtaking, so overpowering, it’s hard to believe it’s real. That was apparently the case for director Miller as well, who while working with NASA and the National Archives to locate all existing Apollo 11 footage, made an eye-opening discovery: a treasure trove of unprocessed 65mm footage of the mission—never seen before by the public—along with over 11,000 hours of related, uncatalogued audio recordings.
Sorting and digitizing that film and audio—which contained tracks from over 60 key personnel, including Armstrong and Aldrin—was undoubtedly a gargantuan undertaking for Miller, which only further underscores the brilliance of Apollo 11, the backstory and construction of which feel in tune with the immense enterprise it’s depicting. Vacillating between myriad perspectives at a moment’s notice, Miller weaves together his preexisting material with a deft hand, employing split screens and canny juxtapositions to convey that which is not said aloud. His film wholly avoids talking head interviews for a far more immersive, immediate snapshot of events, beginning approximately a day in advance of the launch and ending shortly after the three astronauts have returned safely back to Earth.
Damien Chazelle’s First Man ably situated us next to Armstrong and company as they travelled to the moon. Unfortunately for that acclaimed film, though, its concussive recreations pale beside the real thing. Providing a comprehensive 360-degree view—both inside and out—Miller's verité footage is an outright marvel. With Walter Cronkite news broadcasts and NASA announcements serving as intermittent narration about this “dawn of a new age,” the documentary locates beauty at almost every turn. The splendor of the rocket, standing tall against a crystal-clear blue sky. The excitement of the crowds gathering to tilt their sunglasses-adorned faces and telephoto lenses skyward, spied from a distance as well as up close (including from the vantage point of a snack stand operator). The chest-rattling force of the thrusters bursting into action, producing a rain of fire that makes the craft appear to be a mythic titan rousing from a long slumber. In its early going, Apollo 11 is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Throughout, Miller returns to mission control centers, where men in white shirts and black ties sit at rows of towering computer consoles that the camera pans by, thus underscoring the extent of the on-the-ground work needed to realize this historic expedition. In cutaways to small Apollo 11 miniatures, the director emphasizes the inherent relationship between the micro and the macro, the terrestrial and the heavenly. That can also be felt in his flip-flopping between grainy black-and-white clips of the crew getting into and piloting the craft (and workers trying to fix a faulty valve) and vibrant looks at the ship glistening in the sun—the interplay of monochrome and color, of interior and exterior POVs, results in a comprehensive and cohesive vision of the many small pieces that went into creating this colossal whole.
Apollo 11 has been assembled with tremendous aesthetic care and skill. It’s buoyed by superb archival cinematography from a wide range of sources, and a portentous Matt Morton score—founded on a sea of thunderous bass—that enhances the proceedings’ weighty import and sense of awe. White-on-black CGI diagrams of the ship’s in-fight maneuvers provide context for the immediate action at hand, and textual countdowns for various operations amplify tension and exhilaration. Static-y voices abound, as do heroic countenances, be they those in NASA control centers or in outer space, where Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins steer their groundbreaking vehicle toward its destination, report back to Earth, shave, and listen to the radio.
The apex of the Apollo 11 story is, of course, the landing and subsequent time spent on the moon, and in this regard, Miller’s film doesn’t disappoint—the descent to the lunar surface, Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind, and the astronauts’ collection of environmental samples are visualized in spectacular scenes shot from both near and far. A panorama of the moon’s rocky wasteland, Apollo 11’s shadow spied in the frame’s far corner, emphasizes a sense of unthinkable magnitude. Armstrong and Aldrin’s comments, meanwhile, remind one of the human individuals at the center of this achievement. It’s a rousing sequence punctuated by snapshots of the two explorers saluting the freshly planted Stars and Stripes, and is followed by an unbroken shot of their lunar module flying across the moon’s surface—and toward Apollo 11, with which it intends to dock—that’s even more magnificent.
That unparalleled moment feels like science fiction come to actual honest-to-goodness life. And along with numerous shots of machinery interlocking and disengaging from each other, the Earth seen glowing and spinning in the background, it boasts a striking authenticity that one imagines would wow even 2001: A Space Odyssey auteur Stanley Kubrick, long credited by conspiracy theorists as the man responsible for faking the moon landing. There’s clearly no trickery here, only an astounding and celebratory portrait of human ingenuity on an epic scale. Good luck not breaking out in chills and cheers—and possibly even a few tears—while experiencing its majesty.