It is easy to think that there’s nothing left to be said, and even less to be seen, about the flight that took place on July 16th, 1969 — one that took three men hundreds of thousands of miles away from earth and let two of them step foot on the moon. The countdown to lift-off, that massive flaming metal ring that drops away and burns in the stratosphere, the mirror-helmeted figure planting a flag on the lunar surface, “One small step for man …”: you don’t have to been born before 1969 to have this mental flipbook flash before your mind’s eye. You don’t have to have seen the Oscar-nominated For All Mankind (1989), or any other documentaries about the space race (or the Sixties or the 10 Greatest Moments in Our Species’ History), to recall the sight of our big blue marble as seen from the Apollo 11’s passenger-side portal. You don’t even need to have sat through last year’s biopic First Man to picture Neil Armstrong shuffling across the Sea of Tranquility. Some 50 years after that fact, these sounds and images are permanently burned into our collective consciousness. What can be gained by revisiting them for the gajillionth time?
You can’t be blamed for thinking any of this going into Apollo 11, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller’s chronicle of the landmark event. By the time you leave the theater 93 minutes later, however, you will wonder how we were ever able to properly consider this historical occasion without his doc. An assemblage of recently discovered, near-pristine 65mm footage excavated from NASA’s archives — buffered by some 11,000 hours of previously unheard audio — this extraordinary accomplishment doesn’t just add to our shared knowledge of what happened in the nine days between take-off and splashdown. It greatly broadens, deepens and enhances every single aspect of the journey that the Apollo 11 embarked upon. It may or may not be the definitive recounting of that giant leap for mankind. But it’s undoubtedly the single most immersive portrait of how an army of technicians, flight-control teams, organizational bigwigs and, crucially, three brave men took us to stars and back. This doesn’t just feel like a movie. It gives you the sensation that you’ve been transported right into the middle of history.
Credit the way Miller and his team handle this treasure chest of behind-the-scenes snippets and fly-on-the-wall flight footage — and what they leave out. In the does-not-include column: talking-head stumping from NASA officials, academics, pundits, past and present astronauts; narration from a gravitas-providing actor over the age of 60; that-was-the-week-that-was clip reels or K-Tel’s Golden Hits to provide context. (The closest we get is an overheard news report that mentions Vietnam and Chappaquidick, the better to eavesdrop on Kennedy Space Center employees gossiping about Ted Kennedy.) As the Saturn V rocket is wheeled out, we get a Cronkite soliloquy about man fulfilling his destiny to reach the heavens. Nixon makes a cameo. (In a crowd shot!) But that’s it for gap-filling particulars. We know what happened. Apollo 11 wants to show you the small moments in between the big steps, the God-is-in-the-details asides that add up to a cumulative, 360-degree portrait.
And my God, does that make all the difference. We get to hang out in the suit-up rooms T-minus 20 hours before launch, within the ship and among the sea of engineers in mission control during the journey, and briefly, the quarantine-to-fanfare period that happened immediately afterwards. We get to know Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin through rapid-fire montages of personal snapshots and pre-Apollo test flights. We see the crowds tailgating on the periphery, waiting to catch a glimpse of a threshold being crossed, and men in short-sleeve dress shirts stare at monitors and crunch stats numbers. We touch down on the surface of the big, grey rock in real-time. Even Armstong’s famous moonwalk is witnessed from not from the remote camera — the image that immediately pops in your head when anyone utters the 10 words that changed the world — but from an alternate viewpoint through window of the lunar module. (The finds that the filmmakers have come across here are astonishing.) Hand-holding explanations are M.I.A. An almost experimental-cinema, you-are-there experiential aesthetic is the name of the game here.
In his previous documentary Dinosaur 13 (2014), Miller took a somewhat straightforward approach to reporting about the discovery of the largest T. Rex fossil to date. (From the Mesozoic era to the Space Age, in two movies.) Blessed with carefully preserved, breathtaking visuals — see this during its one-week IMAX run if you can — and too many candid peeks behind the curtain to count, the director-editor simply cuts to the chase and brings folks along for the ride. You can’t emphasize enough how his free-form approach to letting the images do the heavy lifting puts this a cut above most docs, any more than you can underestimate how composer Matt Morton’s score lends a thumping, droning, roaring sense of awe to the more dramatic elements of the mission. All of this new 24-frames-per-second testimony makes something so indelibly familiar seem unexpectedly fresh to viewers.
But even more importantly, by giving equal time to the labor and love that went into the endeavor, the men and women who toiled in obscurity, the seconds spent with the spacesuited trio before they became the Space Race’s Holy Trinity, Apollo 11 humanizes this accomplishment as well. That’s what makes this time capsule feel like a miracle. It takes you right up past the stratosphere alongside these souls. Then it brings everything back down to Earth with equal agility and grace. It is a revelation.