APOLLO 11 review by Mike Catto
28 June 2019
The Arts Show’s resident film buff, Mike Catto is a seasoned film critic, educator, and historian.
Apollo 11 Director: Todd Douglas Miller Certificate: U 93 minutes
Many documentaries have been made about the July 1969 first moon landing, and this, the 50th anniversary, has produced many more. Nor should we forget Damien Chazelle’s extraordinary reconstruction in First Man in 2018. It is clear from viewing Miller’s documentary that Chazelle had learned all the right lessons from the NASA footage that has only recently become available to researchers and film-makers
Rather than wait for my final opinion, let me state now that Apollo 11 might well be the definitive documentary on the subject. While many documentaries on any subject - especially those on TV with experts openly demonstrating that the topic is a personal take on the subject, this film eschews not only any expert but also any kind of narration other than the actual words of the protagonists and TV commentators at the time. No talking heads, no reconstructions, no CGI.
Instead we get a precise edit from a massive amount of material shot at the time. NASA was, until recently, content to lease out use of what might be called the ‘highlights’ of the mission; footage we have seen many times over. The preparations on the ground; the countdown and launch; the separation of the stages of the rocket and, of, course, Neil Armstrong taking his historic one small step. Not that long ago they agreed to allow archivists to transfer a great deal of footage to 65mm for assemblage into a documentary to be shown on the huge IMAX screen. Only then did the records of just how much other film and old video was held by NASA emerge. Take for example the fact that there were almost 50 cameras alone trained on the rocket on its gantry at Cape Kennedy. While any and all of them could be fed into Ground Control, the assumption was that, as 99% of the footage was there for purely internal technical and safety purposes, the public would only be interested in the astronauts.
Add in all the cameras in Ground Control and Houston’s Mission Control plus footage from dozens of global broadcasters and amateur film. It’s estimated that Todd Douglas Miller had anything up to 40,000 hours of available footage. Even the background of some sequences are astonishing: technicians having a coffee break while the TV news mentions Edward Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. Fascinating to see on screen that Armstrong’s heart rate went from 110 to 156 as Eagle descended to the lunar surface.
Images shot by the crew inside Apollo and the Lunar Module Eagle were beamed to the world in grainy b/w…but they were shot in full colour. The return ‘burn’ through our atmosphere was also shot in colour but deemed too scary to broadcast at the time. In contrast to the feast of images of the mission, the private lives of Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin is deliberately shown in brief with still photographs of their families.
It might be argued that Apollo 11 doesn’t probe the issues in NASA nor the political machinations behind the Apollo programme, but that is for another kind of documentary. I felt that the musical score was poundingly irrelevant and that the captions on screen were so small and modest as to be hard to read, but everything else was totally gripping.