Recently dramatized in “First Man,” the 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon gets excellent documentary treatment in Todd Douglas Miller’s film, which for the most part simply edits together NASA footage to present a you-are-there overview of the achievement. The fact that much of the footage has never been publicly released before, and some is in 70mm, makes for a pretty amazing visual event as well as a fine half-a-century anniversary tribute, especially if one takes advantage of the chance to see it in IMAX format. (It will soon be available on CNN, though; the cable network produced it.)
There are a few elements in “Apollo 11,” however, that are not strictly speaking NASA footage. The montages of archival material on each of the three astronauts as they are introduced provide a bit of background that humanizes the men we see being sent off into space and then coming back to quarantine. (Neil Armstrong comes across as a much more agreeable fellow than the one portrayed by Ryan Gosling.) And inevitably excerpts from Walter Cronkite’s broadcast coverage are employed at the start to provide context.
More of that is given in the footage of John Kennedy’s announcement of the mission to the moon. (One of the ironies of the event is that when the landing finally occurred, it was Kennedy’s old rival Richard Nixon who was in the Oval Office. We get to hear his phone call to the crew after the moon walk, and glimpse him among the cheering throng welcoming them back to earth.)
The bulk of the feature, though, is official material that carries the story from the morning of liftoff, with coverage of the last-minute discovery of a leaky valve that had to be attended to before the countdown could resume, through the days of the mission, with the passage of time noted in captions, through the capsule’s return and its recovery from the sea. A few scenes of ticker-tape parades held in cities like Chicago are added at the close.
The result will be a nostalgia trip for those who lived through the fifty-year old event and probably remember being glued to their televisions as it proceeded. For others, the film will offer at least a taste of the excitement that manned space flight generated at the time—though in retrospect the contemporary belief that the mission would be but a first step in similar ventures to other parts of the solar system has proven inaccurate: unmanned vehicles have taken the place of manned ones, and as extraordinary as it might be, the sight of a little robot ambling across Mars doesn’t carry the same wow factor that a human being’s actual setting foot on the lunar surface did in 1969.
Testimony to how great the public interest was is conveyed by the footage of huge crowds near the launch site, ready to watch the rocket as it blasted off. One sequence shows a crammed department store parking lot where families had claimed good vantage points for viewing the historic event. It’s both amusing and a bit sad to note that the store is a Penney’s—once a dominant retailer but now as much a flashback to a bygone era as manned NASA space missions.
Of course, there are some folks out there who remain convinced that the Apollo 11 mission was a cleverly crafted hoax, and this film will certainly not persuade them otherwise; they’ll still insist that Stanley Kubrick did it. Ignorance, as theologians say, sometimes is truly invincible.