You may have read a number of very hyperbolic sounding reviews surrounding Apollo 11, declaring it to be “the most perfect movie that will ever be made about its subject” and a film that “has lifted its genre.” It's hard not to roll your eyes when you see reviews like these, as critics are known for their rather eager rushes to build up hype around certain projects, often leading to disappointment when they reach a wider audience.
But today, I can only add to this pile of glowing reviews written by amped-up critics emerging from their screening of Todd Douglas Miller’s epic documentary. 50 years on from the first moon landing (we all know the story by now right? One small step for man etc. etc.), Miller has delivered an unparalleled and indescribably beautiful new look at the historic space mission, one that is utterly unique in its visceral power and uninterrupted beauty.
Through previously unseen 70mm footage (discovered at the National Archive in perfect condition), Apollo 11 brings us man’s first trip to the moon in jaw-dropping clarity. We see the crowds of enthusiasts gathered around the launch pad, the nervous anticipation within the NASA control room, the three astronauts preparing for takeoff, all as if we were there, the extraordinary images often leaving us to marvel at how this footage has only just recently re-surfaced. And, when we witness the Saturn V launch through a breathtaking shot that follows the ship up through the clouds, shedding it’s parts with an almost poetic precision, it is clear that this is no ordinary documentary.
One of the biggest strengths of the film is that director Miller understands the power of this remarkable footage and lets us bask in it undisturbed. Besides the use of occasional on-screen graphics and split-screens to keep us up to speed with the progress of the mission (along with the use of counters that indicate fuel, velocity etc. and help to amp up the tension), Miller lets the images speak for themselves.
And this unfettered approach carries over to the sound design too. Gone are the narrators and the talking head interviews, replaced instead by the radio communications between the control room team and the astronauts. In a way, it is Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins who are our narrators, trading both crucial information and jovial banter with the NASA scientists as they embark forward on their journey.
It is only Matt Morton’s score that marks the biggest change from the original footage, and it is fantastically effective in adding to the experience. Throbbing chords and pulsating beats serve to perfectly evoke the tension surrounding the launchpad, the descent to the moon, the return to Earth, while a dreamy combination of synths hammer home the many beautiful, and occasionally tearful, moments of the voyage
Ultimately, it is clarity that is the key word to understanding Apollo 11’s approach to the documentary genre. Every nervous face in the control room, every crackle of radio static, every plume of flame that bursts from the Saturn V as it leaves Earth, is presented in extraordinarily visceral quality, the stunning power of the footage comparable to last year’s incredible WWI doc They Shall Not Grow Old. And it really is worth trying to catch the film in IMAX too (the film being optimised for IMAX screens), with the images gaining a whole new scale and power on the ultra-large screens. It really is something quite out of this world.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the impact of Apollo 11 is its ability to create an extraordinary amount of tension around the key stages of the mission, despite all of us knowing the ultimately successful outcome of the whole thing (in this regard, it is somewhat similar to the recent Free Solo). This is all down to the pure, unfettered immersive experience that the doc creates, through its incredible newly discovered footage and untampered presentation, gorgeous soundtrack and authentic sound design, leaving us to bask in the beauty of this most incredible event.
As President Nixon said to Armstrong and Aldrin via phone as they walked the moon, “for one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.” Let us bask in that increasingly distant memory.