James C. Clay // Film Critic
This critic was not alive during the July 1969 moon landing that took the world by storm. It has always been in the back of my mind as an event that was ubiquitous with American pride and being the greatest accomplishment in human history, even though there are some conspiracy truthers out there to this day. It wasn’t until the woefully ignored film from last year FIRST MAN, based on the years leading up to Neil Armstrong’s trek from Earth to the Moon, did I have a true appreciation of the work, focus and sacrifice it took from the astronauts (and their families). It’s awe-inspiring.
As it turns out, there is still more story to tell, and in comes the form of the documentary APOLLO 11, which is nothing short of a masterwork and, quite possibly, the most definitive document we will ever have about that fateful mission. Taking place over the course of nine agonizing days, director Todd Douglas Miller takes unseen 70mm footage from behind the scenes of the mission and turns it into a narrative journey from three hours before the mission and all the way to the voyage home. (For context, the IMAX scenes in THE DARK KNIGHT were 70mm.)
The only issue with APOLLO 11 is that if you’re not already invested in the process and the history behind the space race of the 1960s, this film may alienate you a bit. The story is told from a dry and level-headed perspective; there aren’t any characters, no talking heads, or interviews, and we hardly see any of that signature charm from Buzz Aldrin. This was a stylistic choice from Miller, who puts you in the somber headspace of the engineers and communications team. There was too much riding on this mission, and pressure from taxpayers and the media to see results, and (most importantly) there’s the safety of the crew members. For all its lack of charisma, APOLLO 11 makes up for it with detail and precision.
The astonishing part about it is there’s an entire generation that has just lived with the fact that we went to the moon; it almost seems commonplace. As the footage depicts there were real moments of doubt and problems to fix – so many, in fact, that it took several hundred people, not only working tirelessly, but perfectly to bring crew members Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins back home safely. Of course, while watching the film there isn’t in any doubt about the crew’s safety, but there are harrowing moments, most notably in the landing of the Apollo lunar module, which almost saw the demise of the three explorers. It was mathematics and a level-head that became the superpowers exerted in the story – no braun, just intellect.
In the age of social media, everything we have now is documented, so it’s rare to see such pristine footage of thousands of Americans watching on as the 300-foot-tall rocket began it’s orbit around the Earth. We see cat-eye glasses and bouffant hair-dos – all the iconic Rockwellian aesthetic that permeated the American 1960s. For the sake of sounding cheesy, the real star in APOLLO 11 are the people who made this mission come together and succeed. For nine days, this team at NASA were perfect, and that perfection is a point of pride not just for Americans, but for the human race. True, the quest for greatness can be impossible to reach, but if this mission taught us anything it’s that we have to work together and try.
APOLLO 11 is now playing with an exclusive IMAX engagement.