There were a few things going through my head when I sat down to take in Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary that has been wowing film critics left and right in the last few weeks. The first was a memory of young space-obsessed NFB, who used to marvel at the story of Apollo 11 and that famous small step. That obsession has been and gone, but the nostalgia-tinged sepia remains. The second was Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a film I did not see owing to my relative exhaustion with Oscar-bait biopics, but I did wonder if it might have some kind of dramatising impact on this documentary effort. The third was Apollo 11’s own marketing, which professes that the film depicts “the last time when we were one”. Such a pronouncement brought some eye-rolling and figurative guffaws from myself.
But there was still, deep down inside, that little kid who used to look at the moon and think “We’ve been there”. Documentary’s on space exploration are a dime a dozen nowadays – much cheaper than actually going to space I suppose – but, with the 50th anniversary of that landing coming up fast, now seems as good a time as any to re-visit our last great exploratory leap.
In July 1969 a three-man crew consisting of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins embarked on the eight day Apollo 11 mission, with the task of travelling to, landing on, and returning safely from, the Moon. It was a task of gargantuan effort involving thousands of people, with billions watching around the globe. In this documentary, Miller curates from hours of previously unseen archival footage to present the story of that mission.
Apollo 11 is straightforward, if nothing else. It consists of nothing more than a mix of camera footage from the Apollo 11 spacecraft, the mission control room and various bits of contemporary media, with occasional diversions to very simple drawings illustrating the distances being travelled and the exact nature of how we got from the Earth to the Moon. There is no narration or crawls, with the description of what is occurring coming from Launch Control pronouncements, media personalities and the crew of the mission itself. Like Asif Kapadia, Miller is happy to let his subject speak for itself, interjecting only to put up timers and countdowns when appropriate.
Here are the stages of the mission, from the countdown to the launch, the launch itself, the slingshot to the Moon, the orbiting of Luna, the landing, the work on the surface, the return to Moon orbit, the return to Earth and the final splashdown, followed by the inevitable victorious celebrations. Miller is effectively able to capture the scale of what the Apollo mission entailed. Each part is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, and anyone with a passing knowledge of the programme will not find anything too out of the ordinary in here. Miller parses things together with a few nods to events outside of those eight days, most notably John F. Kennedy’s speech to Congress on sending a man to the moon, an appropriate inclusion if ever there was one.
And Apollo 11 also manages to do something very important, which is to craft a sense of tension for historical events that the entire planet knows the conclusion of. I suppose this is as simple a matter of the basic ticking clock on-screen, occasionally matched by other timers noting the rapidly decreasing amounts of fuel that the Eagle is working with, such as on the final approach to the lunar surface. Miller understands, as well as Hitchcock did I suppose, the power of decreasing numbers of screen, the feeling of inevitable dread that such a thing creates, even if the logical part of your mind understands that there is nothing to actually be worried about. Such a feeling is helped by Matt Morton’s score, which interjects suddenly, booms for a time, and then relents, mixing fairly well with the noises of launch and of spacecraft operation.
There are the little things as well of course: Armstrong shaving on the way back (where was the hair put?) while Collins elected to grow a glorious mustache; the multitudes of VIP’s who gathered to watch the launch all wearing the same white hat; the inaccurate low fuel alarm that went off twice during Eagle’s descent to the Moon; or a coolant leak a few hours before lift-off that NASA engineers had to scramble to fix. It’s interesting seeing all of these things as part of the larger whole: to use a cliche, it makes the entire affair, and all of the people involved in it in whatever capacity, seem a bit more human.
The three astronauts, with the buzzcuts, boyish enthusiasm and occasional strays into joking mood (on his own way down the ladder, Aldrin quipped that he better make sure not to lock himself out of the lander) seem very much like your next door neighbour, he just happens to go into space for a living. Before they start the trip to the rocket, they look at the camera, with self-conscious half-smirks playing across their faces, as if they are aware we will still be looking at them fifty years later. The film does nothing to change the standard perception of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins as understated down-to Earth (ha!) gentlemen, not quite prepared for the magnitude of how they would be viewed when they got home. Apollo 11 makes you like these men. That’s no bad thing, in a film that otherwise, intentionally or not, does not offer an an entirely balanced viewpoint.
Does Apollo 11 miss something by just depicting the positives aspects of the mission? Its remit is just that mission I suppose, so it may have felt unnatural to showcase some of the opposition to the Apollo programme. Still, it’s hard not to feel like he film is a whitewash like so much of the cultural depictions of the moon landings, leaving out the sentiment expressed so vividly by Gil Scott-Heron in his “Whitey On The Moon”. We can applaud the effort to get to Luna while still acknowledging that the money spent was largely in pursuit of a prestige competition with the Soviet Union, and that the unity Apollo 11 professes to depict was momentary at best.
Connected to that is the film’s timing. Obviously it is 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, but the idea of giving audiences a look at that “last time when we were one” is something that I, no matter how much I personal consider it hogwash, imagine many would find appealing in a very polarising age. 1969 was the year of Armstrong giving our species its giant leap, 2019 is the year when we line-up to (quite rightly) mock the concept of “Space Force”. It’s comforting to sink into the former, even if we are constructing a narrative that does not quite match the reality of events.
Miller has priors in such things. His other well-known work, 2014’s Dinosaur 13, was a terribly slanted puff-piece about “paleontologist” Peter Larson and his fight against what Miller framed as an over-reaching federal government. It failed to adequately cover the fact that Larson’s work was mostly about personal enrichment, that he tried to pay off the Indian tribes who owned the land he illegally dug in with a fraction of what the bones his team discovered were worth and that he and people he was involved with were neck-deep in money laundering, customs fraud and other offences. Apollo 11 is a much better constructed piece, that dodges such flaws by cutting out talking heads entirely. But it does still have an angle, and that angle is universal positivity.
But Miller’s film is beyond those questions I suppose, or at least is happy to frame itself as such. It’s a film of a different time, that with its 65mm grainy footage of 60’s dress and hairstyles, feels almost intentionally kitschy, like you are looking at a mockumentary. On more than one occasion you will have to remind yourself that you are looking at events that actually happened, and are not just the demented dream of some pulp screenwriter: yes, we actually put three men on top of thousands of pounds of fuel and set a match to it. The opening shots, that showcase the ponderous movement of the Saturn V to the launchpad, and later its slow ascent off that pad, still carry that air of unreality.
Can Apollo 11 be considered, in some ways, a propaganda device, much like 2014’s The Last Man On The Moon was? Certainly, the entire film and especially its closing minutes serves as a ringing endorsement of both the space program and the perception of it as a unifying endevour. But it never strays into open calls for man to return to the Moon or to go beyond, and that idea remains as much an opening monologue punchline as it is a realistic ambition at the present time. It’s more likely a private entity will go to the moon than a vast public operation, and the current guy in charge is so far removed from the ethos and presence of Kennedy that it’s hard to imagine NASA even being able to crash something onto Luna.
Perhaps one day, we will go back. Apollo 11 reminds us of the hard work it will take (which was the reason to do it, if you still believe JFK), and the power of that image, of our species stepping foot on another world. But to do so will require hard conversations on the nature of intention, goals and worth, and those are not questions that Apollo 11 adequately addresses for its subject. Richard Nixon was wrong when he said the world was as one in praying for the safe return of the astronauts – Soviet leadership probably weren’t, as an example – and that sense that Miller wants to reinforce this misguided perception does undercut a bit of an otherwise glowing production. Purely on its own merits, it’s an excellent documentary: one that records the facts of Apollo 11 and presents them in an engaging manner, while also giving us a new perspective on it through the previously unseen footage. If we never do go back, at least we’ll always have Apollo 11. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).