apollo 11 trailer

It feels appropriate that Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 would come out on the heels of First Man, Damien Chazelle’s drama about Neil Armstrong and the moon landing. Chazelle’s film highlighted the stakes felt by otherwise ordinary people as they worked toward an extraordinary goal. Miller’s documentary, made up entirely of NASA archival footage and broadcast news clips, works as a perfect companion, using historical footage to create a fittingly tense account of the mission. The gathered footage shows plenty of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, but it focuses just as much on the hardworking people on the ground, as well as those who gathered to watch the launch.

Apollo 11’s meat-and-potatoes perspective on the moon mission starts with a spectacular shot of the six-and-a-half-million pound rocket being rolled slowly into place on a moving platform. Tank treads inch forward, with the rocket towering overhead, looking like a Star Wars take on atomic age technology. It provides a good sense of what’s to come–while typical moon landing narratives skip to the heroics, Miller’s documentary is all about the details. It’s about the tight fixes, the seams in the welding, and the often-unsung actions of the people who allowed “one small step for man” to happen successfully.

That focus on the everyday people present for a historic moment includes the people who were just there to watch. Miller treats us to shots of lines of cars stretched along Cape Canaveral, with kids and parents snoozing in truck beds, and everyone sporting a summer glow verging on sunburn. There are also shots of the astronauts’ families, their kids looking first wary, then later, overjoyed.

The constant stress that was present in First Man is confirmed and doubled down on in Apollo 11, showing us just how how tiny the margin of error was between success and failure (failure here meaning almost certain death). In this respect, Collins, who piloted the lunar module while Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the surface, becomes the movie’s true hero. He’s the guy who has to jettison parts of the engine, attach to the lunar module, and successfully dock once more with Aldrin and Armstrong so they can all get back home. Staying in orbit while his comrades set up experiments and plant flags, Collins’ experience is an exercise in meditative patience. He remains by himself, passing in and out of contact with ground control as he passes out of comms range, waiting for the moment when he can move into action once more.

More than anything else, Apollo 11 is an incredible exercise in editing. There’s nothing new added here–even the music composed for the film is made up entirely of instruments and technology that was available in 1969. Instead, Miller meticulously arranges images, sound and footage together to create a cohesive narrative, so self-explanatory that the only narration it needs comes from news coverage, and even that mostly to serve as a time marker. The level of restoration in these images is similarly impressive, so sharp and clear that it functions like a true cinematic time machine, adding to the overall sense of immersion.

The level of detail is so intense that Miller even gives us the rocket’s fuel level and checks in on the astronauts’ heart rates. The only thing the film doesn’t give us is the heart rate of the folks in mission control, though we can guess by the level of excitement in their reactions that it was likely similarly elevated. The control room is full of late-night canteen coffee, shift changes and anxious stares at blinking monitors. It’s not sexy, and occasionally it lends a feeling of drag, but Miller creates an effective sense of just how long and nerve-wracking the experience was for everyone involved, in the vacuum of space and on the ground.

There are plenty of accounts of the moon landing in cinema, both documentary and fictional. But Apollo 11 digs even deeper beyond conventional hindsight storytelling. It is slower, methodical telling, more interested in sharing the experiences of people working in the margins. We already know the basic outline of the Apollo mission. We know the sacrifices that went into making it happen. The job of Miller’s film is to make sure we recognize everyone who experienced those sacrifices, failures and eventual resounding success, even those whose names we didn’t learn about, and those whose only role was to bear witness.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

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About the Author

Abby Olcese is a freelance film critic, proud Midwesterner and pie enthusiast. Find her on twitter at @indieabby88.