For all the foibles and wars and acts of wanton cruelty against our fellow human beings, our abilities to bring out the best in the human spirit must never be forgotten. This was on display during the month of July 1969, when the world was in an eight-day grip of Mankind's greatest and most frightening endeavor: to set foot on another celestial body, namely the Moon. The tremendous saga of Apollo 11, which culminated with the first steps on the Moon on the evening of July 20th, was the culmination of what President John F. Kennedy had started back in May 1961, of sending a man to the Moon and then bringing him back safely home to Earth. And while that endeavor was fraught with extreme dangers the likes of which human beings had never had to face before (as borne out by the tragic Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad in January 1967), ultimately it paid off when Neil Armstrong's famous words "That's one small step for Man, one giant leap for Mankind" came from the barren gray surface of the Moon. And in 2019, the 50th anniversary year of that achievement, director Todd Douglas Miller and CNN Films gave us what most likely will end up being the definitive film of those eight days, a documentary simply titled APOLLO 11.
Done without any narration or interviews, APOLLO 11 goes about studying the subject matter in the most straightforward way possible. Miller and his team restored footage from the NASA archives from that heady period in which the world, even (with a certain amount of grudging admiration) our Cold War foe Russia, witnessed an event that forever changed the way we look at ourselves, our own planet Earth, and the universe at large. The film actually shows some things that many might not have been aware of until this film: how a leaky hydrogen valve on the launch pad caused a momentary concern in the early morning hours of July 16th, the day of the launch, plus what seemed to be an all-too-rapid descent of the lunar module "Eagle" onto the lunar surface inside the Sea of Tranquility. The drama of the entire saga, which puts a lot of Hollywood sound-and-fury blockbusters to shame, is enhanced by the use of wisely placed narrative titles, countdown clocks, and additional little CGI simulations of what the audience is witnessing, including the command/service module (CSM) separation, the maneuvers for lunar landing, the insertion of Apollo 11 into is return trajectory to Earth, and the process of splashdown, which is the most hair-raising part of any manned space flight besides the launch itself.
It is probably far too easy to dismiss this film's use of old footage, given how spoiled we have become with CGI spectacle since the 1990s. But the reality of the situation, plus the fact that the treasure trove of footage that Miller and his team worked on to restore and assemble it into a 93-minute whole, really demand it, whether it is seen in the traditional 35-millimeter big screen format or in IMAX. In recent times, we have had films like GRAVITY, INTERSTELLAR, and FIRST MAN (the 2018 dramatization of Neil Armstrong's path towards the Sea of Tranquility) re-affirm what the beauty and inherent dangers of what human beings in the void of space are about. The 1995 blockbuster APOLLO 13, the dramatization of the 1970 lunar flight that almost had a truly tragic outcome, was equally effective, as was 1983's THE RIGHT STUFF. And in 1968, the year before Apollo 11, we had director Stanley Kubrick's awe-inspiring 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. As there should be little, if any, questioning of the validity of these movies to have inspired us through the combination of the human spirit and special effects technology, it is even more important to consider APOLLO 11 as a truly magnificent piece of historic reality told in truly unvarnished fashion, but not embellished in a way that turns the whole thing into a hokey example of bombastic, chest-thumping American brand pf patriotism that diminishes the achievement and turns people off
What is just as remarkable is that, in contrast to what certainly could have been a dramatic use of John Williams motifs or a slather of synthesizers, Matt Morton's avant-garde electronic score for the most part utilizes Moog synthesizers of the period of the late 1960s, so as not to draw too much attention to itself, and thus draw it away from the subject matter. But what it does do is accentuate the inherent drama and even the terror of being in the pitch-black void. All of this, spiced with the period commentary of Cronkite and fellow space buff (and ABC News correspondent) Jules Bergman, helps to make APOLLO 11 a film that will at the very least to re-appreciate this tremendous enterprise that we undertook back then, and might even move the viewer to tears. It is a rare film, documentary or otherwise, that can do it honestly, but APOLLO 11 does this, and then some.
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