It’s a bit odd reviewing the documentary Apollo 11; it feels like you’re reviewing history. By using exclusively archival footage, documentarian Todd Douglas Miller has managed to capture the boundless drama of the first mission to land people on the Moon, and through that, tell one of the most well-known stories in the history of humanity in a new, shocking, and thoroughly captivating way. This is an essential film.
It actually would not have even come to pass if, by sheer happenstance, previously unreleased and unfound 70mm footage had not been discovered on NASA and the National Archive’s (apparently unorganized) shelves. Then, through painstaking attention to detail, over 11,000 hours of audio and hundreds of hours of video were synchronized to paint a complete picture of how this historic moment went down. The question, of course, is why is this at all necessary.
The answer, luckily, is yes. Miller’s documentary is a result of direct cinema, a genre wherein no external narration or dramatic recreations in an attempt to maintain the bare, unfiltered veracity of the story. (It may sound a bit like cinéma vérité, but it refuses to use the camera as a tool with the subjects, which Miller doesn’t have to worry about since, well, he didn’t film anything.) This foreknowledge—or revelation, even, as you watch the movie—imbues the events with a heightened sense of tension. This awareness that something with such an unabashed presentation tells the audience that this truth kicked fiction’s ass and it’ll kick yours, too.
That makes Apollo 11, in essence, a purely academic exercise in editing. It goes all the way from the slow and intimidating transport of the shuttle to the launch pad to the simmering electric buzz of the spectators crowding around the outskirts of the Kennedy Space Center and through the entire launch, landing, and recovery of commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins. And across that spectrum, it conjures conflict and humor and, most of all, a sense of tremendous, unrelenting, indomitable victory.
It manages this by a sort of near alchemy. At no point is anyone stating in explicit terms what’s at stake or what needs to happen, but you are never at a loss for both. And this is while significantly complex maneuvers are happening, such as reaching orbit, pushing out to intercept the Moon, and the fact that every single thing after that is more or less an unknown. The absolute commitment to this potential sacrifice is a palpable texture in this entire story, especially as countdowns of time and fuel and distance only ever feel like countdowns to catastrophic failure.
This is a film that, as it chronicles the seemingly endless obstacles and opportunities for a highly public demise of lives and the entire American space program, will bring you to tears. The incredible sounds of the Saturn V rockets launching and rumbling a sort of violet, brutish pride in humanity’s indefatigable will. The face-shattering smile that emerges on your face as the Green team flight director announces Buzz Aldrin’s post-launch heart rate at a stupidly cold 88 beats per minute. The breathless wonder of simply watching a terrestrial species drift through an inky void.
Final Score: 10 out of 10