The 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 1969 has led to a resurgence of media related to the events of the infamous Apollo 11 mission in which humans finally set foot on the moon. The most notable of which is 2018’s feature film First Man directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling. Though Apollo 11 is a documentary, the two films serve as perfect complements to each other and will undoubtedly be forever joined by subject matter and timing. Where First Man explored the humanity of Neil Armstrong with his various missions as backdrops, Apollo 11 brings every step of the titular mission into breathtaking focus. Using only real NASA footage and with the sole narration provided by actual NASA communications and news footage, Apollo 11 is the most authentic presentation of the moon mission to date.
The footage used in this film is so crisp and stunning that it is truly hard to believe it is real, captured in 1969, and in space! The team that worked on the restoration of this footage deserves the highest of accolades. And not to be outdone, the editing — from the step-by-step recreation of the timeline of events to the syncing of mission audio to the footage — is some of the best you will ever encounter in a documentary or feature film. The addition of minimalist infographics to the film was both delighting and instructional. Their aesthetic kept the audience immersed in the style of 1969 NASA but also helped explain to the audience key information about the mission that could not be communicated solely through existing footage. And rounding out the experience is the sound. Whether it was the seat-rattling rocket ignition or Matt Morton’s synth-heavy score that perfectly accompanies the film without ever stealing the spotlight, Apollo 11 is a wholly immersive visual and auditory experience.
The lack of narration is a deviation from the norm for a documentary. Typically, documentaries rely on interviews or narration to establish a point of view through which the audience will experience the information being presented. By opting out of any sort of narration, director Todd Douglas Miller has chosen to let the film speak for itself. For many, this will lead to a deeper and more riveting experience. For others, it may seem sterile and overly schoolish which is not entirely inaccurate as Apollo 11 feels like it will certainly be shown in schools and universities in the coming years. But even for those that feel as though they just sat through a classroom video, it is hard to imagine that there won’t be at least some healthy level of respect for the construction and beauty of the film.
Arguably the greatest achievement of the film is that it makes viewers respect the true scope of the level of human achievement that this mission was and continues to be. All too often, events that are so far removed in time for many of us have the tendency to be taken for granted. But the format of Apollo 11 lets us be a part of the world of 1969 while fully armed with the knowledge of 2019. It is a magnification of hindsight so vivid that you will be left speechless and scratching your head at just how the hell humans accomplished this FIFTY years ago when it seems just as impossible now. Though similar documentaries such as From the Earth to the Moon and For All Mankind had been previously successful at this, they now seem like small steps compared to the one giant leap that is Apollo 11.