“It’s hard to imagine a more sparkling and breathtaking set of videos, images, and sound clips to serve as a journey through this monumental historical event.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s power in the clear-eyed simplicity of Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11. The simplicity refers largely to the film’s approach – depicting the launch and proceedings of the titular 1969 mission entirely through archival footage, with title cards and an intermittent score serving as the only direct intervention or added creative voice – instead of the process of actually putting the footage together. Indeed, the extensive restoration that clearly went into preparing the film for this release is considerable; fifty years on, it’s hard to imagine a more sparkling and breathtaking set of videos, images, and sound clips to serve as a journey through this monumental historical event. It’s celebratory, which is perhaps intrinsic to its subject matter, but doesn’t editorialize. It serves instead as the most literal interpretation of the documentary genre, taking that word and whittling it down to its most obvious definition. This is a document, plain and simple, and Miller moves us with his power to cast a spell of time and place. It’s not only about the awestruck amazement that the Apollo 11 mission carried at the time – its place as an apex of scientific achievement and society’s interest in such projects – but the legacy that such an accomplishment continues to hold in the American consciousness.
Of course, we have all of the indelible imagery of the first moonwalk itself, but the greatest value of Apollo 11 is its depiction of the innumerable individuals and grand-scale processes on Earth that allowed it to happen in the first place. It’s a sweeping series of motions all throughout the internal-yet-mammoth infrastructure of a well-funded space program, and how it captured the attention of the nation at large. What’s striking about the launch sequence itself is how Miller chooses footage that focuses mostly on the vast crowds assembled, looking on in amazement. Minutes later, though a dynamic sound mix hits us full-on with the overwhelming boom of the flight’s first seconds, our minds still linger with the sheer scope of how the mission seemed to cross every boundary of a country’s collective psyche and bring it together, even if just for a few fleeting moments. These are predicated on respect for a single-held reality: we can see what is happening, how it came to be, and how the national pride of the project itself still can’t preclude the potential of what it represents for a hypothetical world where humanity is united in its pursuit of the future. Though it’s not always as singular and flowing as that sequence, it represents the film’s lofty aspirations. Miller conveys the raw power of reality as a concept worthy of preservation. There’s little to no context on the buildup and development of the mission, and to some degree, that makes the film all the more effective. We are here to play witness to a sturdy restoration; one that represents the events onscreen as much as it does the larger philosophical ideals at hand.
And yet, perhaps Apollo 11 is also worthy of study in a greater image. As of this writing, we stand two weeks out from the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, and certainly much has been said, and will be said in the days to come, about the event itself and what its continued place as a cornerstone in American history represents. Last year, Damien Chazelle’s First Man presented a dramatized view of Neil Armstrong’s life that also reached out and asked bigger questions about how the mission fit into a wider portrait of life in the United States at the time. Contrary to what some might assume, it’s questionable if watching these two movies as a double feature would make much sense, because their objectives, goals, and themes are little matched beyond their setting (though they converge in the sense that they’re both very fine productions). Indeed, maybe Miller’s film stands as the factual basis from which we can see broader patterns in how we as a society understand our past and canonize its greatest accomplishments. Its strength is its laser-focused fascination with the unadjusted evidence of history; on an epistemological level, it appears to know no other time than those few days in July 1969. On its own, it represents a noteworthy achievement in the technical prowess of its making. And thus, it has that much more value and interest in what we can extrapolate from both the idea of the film’s simplicity in structure, and the opportunity it allows us to better understand and appreciate what we’re seeing.