There’s a scene early on in Apollo 11 that happens moments before the Apollo 11 crew’s historic mission. Astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins step into the elevator that will ascend to the Apollo 11’s cockpit. The cameraperson, along for the ride, faces out towards the ship, and in turn, so do we. We go up, and up, and up, seemingly forever. And for a moment I understood what it felt like for Jack to climb his mammoth beanstalk. It’s an incredible moment that conveys the Apollo 11’s impossible scale. We know that these brave men strapped themselves into a 300-foot rocket, but moments like this, make the achievement so real your knees may tremble.
That’s the beauty of director Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11. He chronicles NASA’s Apollo 11 mission but does so in a manner, unlike anything you’ve seen before. You may know the details surrounding mankind’s first lunar mission, but this film will make you feel the weight of the monumental achievement. Miller opens the doc in the early hours before the crew takes flight and ends the story shortly after their landing craft touches down in the Pacific Ocean, and every moment of the journey is thrilling.
What separates Apollo 11 from other docs is that there’s no narration, no talking heads, and no blocks of text explaining what we’re watching. The film presents 90-minutes of never-before-seen footage taken during the mission. It’s that simple and straight-forward, but also epic. We receive front-row seats to the astronauts’ journey as well as an up-close look at the hard-working people back in mission control.
Occasionally a timer appears on the screen counting down to a significant point in the mission. Although we all know how this story plays out, the countdowns still add dramatic tension to the action. Counting down to the next big moment and watching science-fiction become science-fact feels exhilarating. Every time the countdown reaches zero, the culmination of thousands of years of knowledge unlocks the next stage in humanity’s destiny. These moments are literally breath-taking.
Part of Apollo 11’s appeal is the doc’s pristine (newly discovered) 65mm footage. When I first saw clips from the picture, I didn’t know it was footage from the ‘60s. For a moment I thought I was watching cuts from a historical biopic. The bright and clean images pop off the screen when viewed in IMAX. And they’re a sight to behold. The jaw-dropping cinematography left me in awe. Whether conveying the spacecraft’s colossal scale or capturing never before seen looks at the lunar surface, the film made me feel like I was experiencing the Apollo 11 mission in real time.
One of the ways the film shines is in the way that Miller captures the buzz surrounding the mission. There are scores of shots of packed control rooms full of men with horn-rimmed glasses chewing on cigarettes and loosening the knots in their ties. Miller often divides the frame into comic book like panels, broadening our perspective of these cramped quarters. There’s nothing like a triptych of sweaty men hunched over computers, clipboards, and radio receivers, to put the mission’s stakes into perspective.
Matt Morton’s scintillating electronic score adds to the excitement. It’s an interesting choice that doesn’t naturally pair with the ‘60s era footage. It’s without a doubt more Blade Runner than Apocalypse Now. But it works. The movie – especially when viewed in IMAX – is a cinematic dream come to life. And I suspect that watching the footage with the sound off would get my heart beating like a jackhammer. Throw in that score (which sounds like early ‘80s John Carpenter), and you have some of 2019’s most powerful onscreen moments. To put the feeling into context, part of me still wants to punctuate every sentence in this paragraph with flame emojis.
If you’re a science nerd, grew up on Star Trek, hell, even if you’re tired of people telling you what can’t be done, then this movie will speak to you. Apollo 11 captures the moment when the impossible became a reality, and the result is onscreen magic.