On a sweltering day in September 1962, President John F. Kennedy outlined an audacious plan: Before the decade was over, the United States would put a man on the moon and safely splash him down on Earth. It’d been less than sixty years since the Wright Brothers sent their wobbly flyer for a glorified crow-hop from gravity. Now, Kennedy was guaranteeing the Sea of Tranquility, without a clear plan how to get there. For that, an army of chain-smoking science geeks spent seven years pouring over charts and conducting tests to make this vision a reality. With pounding urgency and stunning digital enhancement, Apollo 11 shows us the resounding success that resulted from that historic combination of dreaming and doing.
Director Todd Douglas Miller takes a unique approach by peeling away the layers of peripheral drama and historical significance of the event and giving us a film that’s both immediate and intimate. Apollo 11 exists entirely in the moment: Miller opens on the preliminary countdown and ends with the crew’s reentry. There’s no narration, no rah-rah orchestra, and none of the brawny cinematic flourishes you might expect in a film like this. The narrative is propelled by dialogue from news broadcasts, flight directors at CAPCOM, and the astronauts themselves. Miller makes the wise to decision to let such a riveting, crucial story simply tell itself.
And don’t get it twisted: This film is loaded with dazzling special effects. They just hide in plain sight. Footage from that fateful voyage gets a good soapy scrub with a digital loofah, until it looks like something from somebody’s GoPro. The filmmakers also gained access to previously unseen archival footage, including CCTV shots of the crew boarding the command module. Sound also gets greatly enhanced: Saturn rocket engines rumble the speakers. Chatter between the jittery Launch Control eggheads is clearly audible. All this technical mastery elevates the “you are there” vibe that permeates the whole film.
Apollo 11 only steps out of this tidy chronological approach on one occasion, to pay homage to Kennedy’s famous speech. Detractors might say his idealism was tainted with the competitive hostility of the Cold War, or that his blind optimism reeked of political opportunity. The fact is that Kennedy’s words inspired a brilliant group of people to realize the impossible and unite the world for one jaw-dropping achievement. Apollo 11 is a meticulous tribute to meticulous people. It’s relentlessly exciting and refreshingly real. This is a space race you should appreciate on the biggest screen you can find.