I wasn’t alive when Apollo 11 made its way to the moon. However, thanks to Todd Douglas Miller’s superb documentary, I feel like I experienced this iconic event firsthand. Meticulously created from carefully restored, never before seen footage Apollo 11 is an incredibly immersive film for both the eyes and the ears.
Worth seeing on the biggest screen (with the best sound system) possible, Apollo 11 doesn’t feature present day narration or the ‘talking head’ interviews often used in documentaries. Instead, this film is like a time machine that takes you back to 1969 and gives you a front row seat in mission control.
It is no small feat to make such a familiar moment in history feel so fresh. There have, after all, been many documentaries about Apollo 11 and the US space programme and many fictionalised films have depicted this astounding achievement (including, of course, Damien Chazelle’s First Man).
While celebrating its place in time and honouring its historic significance, Apollo 11’s construction makes the moon landing seem like something that happened only yesterday. Miller and his film crew take archive footage and edit it together in such a way as to add tension and suspense to a story we all know so well.
From its very opening seconds, Apollo 11 is stunning to look at - the detail in the film’s 70mm footage is wonderful, utterly breathtaking. The colours are amazingly crisp, the scale is epic (particularly in the opening scene when a man walks alongside a vehicle transporting the Saturn rocket to its dock) and incredibly cinematic. This documentary just wants to leap off the screen.
However, my favourite moment in Apollo 11 is not among the magnificent shots of the spacecraft and it is not among the many atmospheric scenes featuring the crowds who witnessed the launch.
No, my favourite moment comes early on in the film when Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin suit up for their mission. We see the three men contemplate their journey - its significance and its risks - and then the film shows us a montage summarising their personal and professional lives.
It is a powerful and moving moment - full of drama and tension. Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin’s lives seems to flash before their eyes. We know how this story ends but Apollo 11 still makes us anxious for the fate of these three brave astronauts.
It is Apollo 11’s ability to mix intimate moments with scenes of high drama and stunning, cinematic spectacle that makes Miller’s film so powerful and entertaining. This is no dry, here’s your history lesson doc. This is a propulsive event movie - thanks in no small part to its incredible score from composer Matt Morton. This is a film that will captivate and delight all the family and it has - Apollo 11 has made over $12 million at the box office.
It was only on leaving the cinema that I started to think about the incredible task of making Apollo 11. Working with Nasa and the US National Archives, Miller and his team (led by hero archivist Stephen Slater) went through an astounding 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio and restored huge amounts of original film - including that gorgeous 70mm forgotten footage.
The documentary filmmakers faced many challenges. For example, none of the archive footage had any sound. In an interview with the BFI, Miller recalls that Slater had an idea to synchronise mission control footage with the air-to-ground transmissions that were available to the public. “It was really tedious work,” Miller rememembers. However, they both knew how important it was to make the images come alive.
And boy do those images ever come alive... Apollo 11 is one of the best documentaries about man's mission to walk on the moon. An instant classic.