A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2019

RANK: #5

APOLLO 11 jjjj

2019, G, 90 mins.


 A documentary directed by Todd Douglas Miller




There are very few films these days that legitimately instill in me a childlike sensation of awe and wonder in their sights and make me feel like I've been thoroughly transported out of my cinema chair and into the events transpiring on screen as an active participant.  

Todd Douglas Miller's astonishing new documentary, simply titled APOLLO 11, is one of those decidedly rare breeds of filmgoing experiences that elicited in me an out-of-body sensory experience.  And yes, there have been many great films that have chronicled mankind's arduous first journey towards landing on the moon (Damien Chazelle's masterful FIRST MAN from last year comes immediately to mind, as does 1989's comparably intoxicating FOR ALL MANKIND), but none before can hold a candle to what APOLLO 11 awesomely achieves.   

The key to this film's success is in its stark simplicity and creative economy.  APOLLO 11 is refreshingly atypical in its documenting of history: The film is comprised 100 per cent of archival footage, much of it previously unseen and unreleased 70mm film footage, that was all painstakingly transported by special climate controlled vans by Miller and company to state of the art post production facilities in New York, where the negatives were meticulously and digitally scanned to preserve their integrity.  Not only is APOLLO 11's sole usage of preserved historical footage unique, but the crew also avoided using any narration of any kind throughout the doc, instead relying on 11, 000 hours of voice recordings at Mission Control leading into the manned moon landing on July 20, 1969, as well as a slew of other behind the scenes chatter with the crew as well.  Miller had the complete cooperation of NASA in this Herculean moviemaking endeavor. 



The results here are flat out mesmerizing.  APOLLO 11 builds a tight narrative that chronicles each stage of the hours leading into NASA finally landing a human being on the moon, from early prep for the launch, to the mass of spectators on hand to watch it, to the blast off of the Saturn V rocket, the eventually touching down of the command capsule on the moon, and all the way to Neil Armstrong and company leaving the lunar surface and returning back home safely...all done with actual footage, actual audio recordings, and none of the other standard and obligatory accoutrements of the doc genre.  There is nothing on screen here that did not come from the late 60s; hell, even the doc's music score was created using only the technology that was available to composers of 1969.  This astounding attention to detail is what really makes APOLLO 11 proudly stand apart from all other films of its ilk.   

I know that far too many critics (myself included) often overuse the descriptor "immersive" when it comes to films.  Yet, APOLLO 11 has a startling and immediate sense of immersiveness right from its inspiring opening shot, featuring unfathomably large, tank-like vehicles slowly transporting the gargantuan Saturn rocket to its ground zero blast off point (the 70mm footage also shows humans on the ground walking beside it, the relative size of ants).  The razor sharp clarity of this nearly fifty year old imagery is a stunning revelation and is positively breathtaking.  Within a few sort introductory moments of APOLLO 11 I was simply glued to the screen and transfixed: Watching that Cape Canaveral crawler move that vessel that would unavoidable send some inordinately brave men to the moon made me instantly ponder and respect the technological miracle of the Apollo 11 mission itself, just five decades after human beings achieved mechanical flight....and all with less sophisticated computer technology at NASA's grasp than what we now have in our pockets with our phones. 

There are so many unendingly suspenseful moments presented here to revisit with the program, like Saturn V leaving Earth and into space (shown here from an entirely new perspective with the unearthed footage).  There's also a grand moment featuring a first person point of view of the astronauts looking out their capsule window as it burns up upon re-entry into Earth's atmosphere that's equal parts mesmerizing and frightening.  Of course, everyone remembers the televised moment of Armstrong fist stepping foot on the moon - one of the greatest moments in recorded history - but APOLLO 11 even manages to show off that instance from a fresh new angle to make this unparalleled event in the annals of space travel feel fresh and new again.  The doc also serves up quieter and more intimately rendered moments as well, like the gathering of spectators at Cape Canaveral and the unbridled excitement, but eerie silence of the crowd pre-launch. 

Everyone with a pulse walking into a cinema to view APOLLO 11 knows exactly what went down and how everything turned out.  Yet, the sheer artistic genius of Miller's approach here is that - despite knowing the actual history and chain of events of the moon landing - he still makes them transcendently powerful, tension filled, and, well, utterly magical.  All of us have seen rockets, for example, take off before countless times to the point of it becoming weirdly routine, but APOLLO 11 wisely reminds viewers that what NASA achieved here was so shockingly unthinkable and seemingly impossible.  With the immaculately preserved footage shown here - and on the biggest screen available - Miller's film made me feel like I just watched a massive rocket soaring off into the heavens for the first time in my life.  So many docs these days come off like sermonizing re-valuated history lessons that sometimes preach the agendas of their makers, but APOLLO 11 has no such motives.  It's not trying to teach us anything we don't already know about its subject.  Instead, it's about viscerally placing us back into history to the point where it seems like yesterday.  And that's a power that so few films have these days. 

Experiencing something incredible familiar in a whole newfound light is not easy.  APOLLO 11 plainly lays out the entirety of the steps Armstrong and his crew took towards making his first step on a surface not of this planet, but in the process makes it all seem incredible to behold and absorb again.  Most importantly, Miller honors the courageous and intrepid souls that dared to dream the unfathomable and make it happen at whatever cost.  APOLLO 11 becomes an inspired, edifying, and wholeheartedly intoxicating celebration of human ingenuity and persistence of technological vision.  This film is like a hypodermic needle to the heart that wakes us up out of movie watching lethargy and complacency, and I'm sure it will make many adults that were alive in 1969 feel like wide eyed and stunned kids again while watching and marveling at it.  APOLLO 11 is not only one of the best films of 2019, but is also one of the best cinematic experiences about the perils and triumphs of NASA's early days that I've ever seen.

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