Synopsis: A look at the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon led by commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin.
Stars: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (10/10)
Review: The red carpet has barely been rolled up from the Oscars celebrating the 2018 movie season but is it too early to feel like 2019 has already seen the release of a surefire nomination for Best Documentary? Yeah, I know it’s barely March and there are many months to go before the documentary features released this year get shortlisted for a shot at an Academy Award but I can’t imagine Apollo 11 won’t be included in that spread. Before this weekend, I had heard next to nothing about this film released from indie studio Neon, but after it secured a one-week engagement in IMAX I was curious if I should make time for it. I’m so glad the timing worked out and I had the opportunity to see it projected on a huge screen. Here’s a stunning accomplishment in cinema 50 years in the making that looks like it was filmed yesterday.
The moon landing in July of 1969 by the crew of Apollo 11 isn’t exactly an event we don’t know a lot about. There have been countless books, movies, TV specials, and a few conspiracy theories that have broken down the extraordinary measures it took for NASA to send a man to the moon. Just last year saw the arrival of First Man, a biopic of Neil Armstrong where Apollo 11’s mission plays a key part of the action. While that movie was a bust due in no small part to its cold aloofness toward the audience, Apollo 11 embraces viewers with open arms.
Using an astonishing amount of footage that hasn’t been seen previously, director Todd Douglas Miller has put together a documentary with a style I usually shy away from. There’s no narration and no interviews…it relies entirely on film shot during the time of Apollo 11’s mission both on the ground and in space. Okay, there’s a tiny bit of basic animation to illustrate some of the maneuvers the spacecraft undertook on its journey to the moon but it’s unobtrusive to the fascinating audio and video many of us will be taking in for the first time. Remastered and optimized for an IMAX experience, the footage looks spectacular, you’ll very likely forget you’re watching a documentary and not a Hollywood movie that’s spared no expense in reproducing the mission with top notch production design and special effects.
The movie wastes no time in introducing us to astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins and detailing their preparation to take on this challenge into the unknown. As they suit up, we get quick flashes of each of their personal histories that led them to this point and hold our breaths as they take their place at the top of a rocket that will send them into orbit. If you’ve seen First Man, you have the added context of what fueled Armstrong’s urge to take to the skies but Aldrin and Collins have always been a bit of an enimga to me. It should also be noted that Armstrong is shown to be a genial, warm, personable presence…a far cry from the emotionally vacant shell Ryan Gosling played him as in First Man.
Making sure everything goes as planned are hundreds of workers on the ground monitoring their progress from Florida and Houston. Almost entirely male, the NASA employees manning the control station are level-headed and precise…but at times become a little hard to distinguish from one another. At the same time, Miller brings in footage of the general public arriving to witness this historic moment, crowding onto beaches and hotel balconies to have the best vantage point at lift off. These establishing shots are important to orient us to the time, place, and people without ever having to explain anything to the viewer. I can understand where Miller obtained the NASA footage but these passages of the swells of people is truly an impressive get, especially considering how pristine they’ve been rendered.
There are several scenes in Apollo 11 that unexpectedly hit me in a real emotional sweet spot. Don’t be shocked if the pulse pounding take-off, Armstrong’s first step onto the moon, the astronaut’s splash landing on their return, or a beautiful coda elicit some tears. I’m not sure if it was the general awesomeness of these moments captured on film or a feeling of pride at the accomplishment of our country but it’s enough to make you almost uncontrollably leap out of your seat at the end. I’d sit through the movie all over again just to witness Apollo 11 lifting off from the ground and ascending into the heavens — a truly spellbinding few minutes.
Certain movies are meant to be seen in theaters on the biggest possible screen, like last year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary Free Solo. Apollo 11 is absolutely one of those films where you should do everything you can to catch it before it leaves your local cinema. I can imagine it will still play well if you watch it at home but there’s nothing that will be able to beat the experience of watching these monumental moments on the most gigantic screen you can find. See it, see it, see it. You won’t be disappointed.