Apollo 11

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/28/19 00:28:29

"Puts you right in the middle of one of history's great adventures."
5 stars (Awesome)

While recommending "Apollo 11" to friends and family on social media, there was an interjection that there is probably less "rediscovered" footage in the film than the marketing would have one believe, that most of what people are treating as new here has been in other documentaries, both about the first mission to the moon and NASA more generally. Likely true, but also kind of adjacent to what I was actually saying about how people should try and catch it as part of its limited (but longer-than-expected) run: It's terrifically put together and undeniably amazing to look at.

There have been other NASA documentaries, of course, but many of them have been done for television, and mostly before high definition was the order of the day, and even when they were done for theatrical presentation (and seen that way), they would often use the television footage, either because that was what was available, because the filmmakers wanted to strike an emotional chord with baby boomers and how they remembered these events, or even to emphasize how analog and low-tech what NASA had to work with was relative to the present. Those are all valid reasons to present such a film that way, but eventually that grainy video becomes too much a part of how one pictures the event, as opposed to just an artifact of the medium.

For Apollo 11, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller instead finds the best sources he can, including some relatively rare 65mm footage, has the picture and sound cleaned up, and generally saves the NTSC video for when there's no other footage of an iconic moment, and seen on the big screen, it's something of a revelation: Visual detail pops in ways that much of the audience has never seen it before, and a barrier that those who hadn't lived through the events (by now, most of the film's potential audience) seems to be lifted. Heck, much of the actual time on the surface on the moon is presented as the clearest, highest-resolution stills he could find, to make sure that the sharp edges and incredible clarity of vacuum make more of an impression than the limits of what could be broadcast live back then. The footage itself is often functional, unmistakably shot by engineers and technicians to be useful before concerns of artistry, but as such it gives the audience a sense of scope and scale. What's important is always front and center, but there's room for the curious eye to wander, and when a shot does seem odd or awkward, that tells a story too, of tight quarters where the film camera can't quite get as close as one might like.

Miller takes all that and makes a movie out of it, mostly opting against narration and doing all he can to let the story seem to tell itself. He's good enough at it that even the moments where he most obviously breaks the strictly chronological presentation, such as a set of quick montages summarizing the paths astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins took to reach this point, made to look like flashbacks from a narrative feature, are seamless. Split screens and infographics are similarly deployed in a modern way, though not ostentatiously so, and he gets into details like a set of leaking valves on the morning of the launch that have grown a bit less well-known over time. Miller focuses tightly on the mission itself, using home movies to show the scene outside the launch, but stripping out much of the nostalgia usually attached to it - he's aware that most of his audience will not have seen these events first-hand and delivers a sort of compressed experience, aiming to keep it as authentic and immediate as possible, full of tension but also trust rather than just a sentimental look back.

An especially noteworthy part of what helps make Apollo 11 work is the sound and music - just as the picture has likely been prettied up a bit, Eric Milano and his crew have done a nice job of remixing the sound to be immersive in a modern theater. There are parts that stick out as maybe not so great as the image, but sometimes that's the best you can do and it's not a bad reminder that the crew is working with fifty-year-old materials. The score by Matt Morton is also terrific - though performed entirely on instruments available in 1969, it's often built to increase the feeling of tension and uncertainty despite the outcome of this mission being a foregone conclusion, and it's interesting that a similar choice was also made for the dramatized First Man. Later generations know how it's going to end, and much of what happens along the way, but this stimulates a bit of the nervousness their parents and grandparents must have felt.

This sense of creating an experience is one of the best arguments for the big screen being different than simply watching the same footage at home; sit close enough so that the screen fills your vision and you're maybe not quite there with the astronauts but there's very little coming through your eyes and ears to say otherwise. It will look great at home - especially if the distributor will put out Ultra-HD discs - but it achieves its potential best when you can't see the edges, enough that I hope science museums and other places with giant screens either keep it around or bring it back every once in a while.

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