One of the greatest triumphs in human history, the Apollo 11 mission to put men on the moon, has always felt larger-than-life for those who did not live through it. You can easily feel as though one simply had to be there to comprehend the bated-breath excitement of ordinary folks all around the world, the awe-inspiring collaboration of thousands of people in order to do the impossible, and the staggering beauty of what astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins experienced during their 9-day mission. But now with Neon and CNN Films’ stunning documentary Apollo 11, filmmaker Todd Miller has taken one small step for documentaries and one giant leap for what we should demand from chronicling our history. Without risking hyperbole, Apollo 11 is a staggering, immersive cinematic experience that truly makes you feel as though you are along for the ride in one of the most daring undertakings of all time.
Image: CNN Films / Neon
Drawing from more than 11,000 hours of archival material, which has been digitized and sharpened to the point where it boggles the mind, the filmmakers both humanized and reconstructed the moon landing mission in meticulous detail. The footage, which was largely taken from a newly discovered trove of 65mm film, looks so crisp, so clean, so impossibly high definition that you would think it was filmed last week on the set of a ’60s-themed TV show rather than 50 years earlier.
From scenes of wide-eyed onlookers camping out on the coast surrounding the Kennedy Space Center to CCTV footage of engineers frantically trying to staunch a hydrogen leak that threatened to derail launch day to the solar corona cresting around moon prior to lunar orbit insertion, Apollo 11 truly made history come alive in a way that has rarely been seen. Hearing Buzz Aldrin crack a joke over the radio about making sure not to lock the door on the lunar module or compare floating through space to being in a rotating restaurant puts a distinctly human face on what felt like a monolithic event. It feels like a much-needed exhalation after the tense, often claustrophobic drama of Damien Chazelle’s First Man (which was snubbed by the Academy for unknown reasons that will haunt me til my dying day).
Image: NASA/REX Features
Apollo 11 not only highlights the best of humanity, showing what is possible when thousands come together for the common purpose of advancing human progress and exploring the unknown, but it also feels like an elegy for an age long since gone. The Space Race wasn’t purely an altruistic endeavor; it was the ultimate “weird flex, but okay,” as a nationalistic method of showing those pesky Russkies who was boss. The days of American exceptionalism, the feeling of limitless potential are over, held hostage by dwindling budgets, an increasingly hostile attitude towards science, and a plan for the future that only includes creating a military force so nonsensical that Steve Carrell is already starring in a parody of it.
But those wistful feelings were fleeting, supplanted by awe, excitement, and a sheer sense of wonder. Time is a flat circle and perhaps by watching this documentary, others can regain that sense of hope, optimism, and possibility that led us to putting two men on the moon in the first place.
Rating: 5 out 5
Featured Image: CNN Films/Neon