Apollo 11 (2019)

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

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Apollo 11 is a riveting, a cinematic documentary that does away with talking heads, narration and outsider perspectives.  This is a movie that, thanks to previously unseen footage, puts us right there on the ground floor with the astronauts, observers and mission control during the entirety of the Apollo 11 mission, across seven days in July 1969.

The movie has more in common with Damien Chazelle’s First Man than it does with whatever you picture when you think “documentary.”  The movie’s narrative is enhanced with a wonderful sound design and pulsating score, and like First Man the goal here is to make us feel what it was like to bear witness to this historic event.

Right up top we take in the impressive, overwhelming scale of the rocket atop which sit the three astronauts sent to the moon.  They are Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.  Though we have plenty of time to see what it was like to be amongst the gathered crowds to watch the Florida launch, we are also just as close to the astronauts themselves, hearing Aldrin crack jokes about accidentally locking them outside of their lunar module on the moon and, on several instances, learning what their heart rates were during individual moments.

It’s really just all quite amazing, I’m not sure how else to describe it.  It’s as tense and exciting as any recent movie I’ve seen, and aesthetically it’s simply beautiful.  The footage is unreal, making the history feel so damn immediate and tangible.  In that sense of reality it feels all the more otherworldly and absurd.

Seeing Armstrong and Aldrin for the first time is a bit of a shock simply because of the camera quality.  It looks like this could’ve been filmed yesterday, and it took me a moment to make sure that this wasn’t a reenactment.  They are actually right there, looking back at the camera while a team of people check again to make sure their suits are ready to go.

So Apollo 11 is absolutely mesmerizing, and it’s certainly celebratory.  It’s romantic from afar, but the individual moments are buried in the minutiae of their reality.  In that dynamic it feels all the more improbable that they managed to pull this off.

This movie has a similar appeal as 2018’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a restoration of World War I footage directed by Peter Jackson.  It also has much in common with experimental cinema that is unconcerned with narrative and instead prioritizes the simple power of image and sound.  There’s even a little Terrence Malick in all of this.

Apollo 11 is cinematic, exciting and unbelievable, which is a tall order for a documentary.  In my mind this is the best type of documentary, one that makes you feel, like any movie does, rather than trying to explain that feeling.  There’s always a place for those types of documentaries, but if you have the opportunity to tell a story this way, with this kind of breathtaking footage, then it’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Up Next: Apollo 13 (1995), Fighting With My Family (2019), Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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