This groundbreaking documentary makes you feel like you’re witnessing the moon landing firsthand, from mission control to the lunar surface.
It’s been nearly 50 years since Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins became the first human beings to fly to the moon. Any number of things could have gone wrong during the mission, but as we know, nothing did. That doesn’t stop you from watching every dire last-second moment with a hand over your mouth, holding your breath, and wondering, “Are they going to make it?”
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller (Dinosaur 13), this documentary is so visually stunning, you’ll think it was shot yesterday. The filmmakers restored both well-known and never-before-seen 70 mm film, a feat in itself. On the enormous IMAX screen, every detail is shockingly visible.
The very first shot is of the Saturn V rocket being hauled from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch site on a crawler platform, resembling a giant tank. Workers walking along the path are dwarfed by the treads alone. From the start, you’re aware that this is a documentary unlike any other. The entire film is made up of beautiful archival footage and crackling audio from the astronauts and mission control. There are no interviews or narration.
Aside from the rocket ships, the explosions, and the powdery lunar surface, it’s the astronauts’ faces that inspire. A couple of hours before the launch, on July 16, 1969, while Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin are getting suited up, the camera catches their flashes of apprehension and excitement. Commander Armstrong looks sober and unsmiling; command module pilot Collins is nonchalant and focused; lunar module pilot Aldrin wears a slightly cocky grin.
While you’re watching it on the big screen, you can’t help but identify with the crowd of one million at Cape Canaveral, Florida, which includes former president Lyndon B. Johnson and Tonight Show host Johnny Carson.
You also join mission control, a room full of men in club master glasses, short-sleeved shirts and ties, and close-cropped hair. Their voices guide you through the mission, and you can’t help but wonder how they accomplished this without today’s computer technology. They remain professional, despite being some of the most stressed people on the planet. The only people more stressed than mission control are the three men in space.
Matt Morton’s score ranges from heart-pounding countdown percussion to contemplative piano to futuristic deep synth blasts. It’s the only part of the documentary that calls attention to itself, but thankfully it reinforces the drama without distracting.
This is what every good documentary strives to produce: a thrilling, unadulterated historical account, preserved for future generations. And what better topic is there than the greatest moment in human history?
‘Apollo 11’ lands in theaters March 1st.
Photo courtesy of Neon/CNN Films.