Movie Reviews: Apollo 11 (2019)

Fifty years on, there are still few human achievements that can measure alongside sending humans to the moon and returning them back alive.  Yet, we live in a time were many still do not believe it is something that ever happened which makes preserving the historical record more vital than ever in the face of conspiracy theorists.  It’s a story that’s been told plenty of times before, hell, we just had a dramatic account last year, with the footage having been seen countless times by everyone, and yet there’s still value in a documentary about the mission, as famous and well documented as it may be.

Apollo 11 wisely recognizes this and lets the visuals do the talking.  It is told entirely through archival footage and very limited graphics which are generally restricted to giving information such as countdowns and fuel remaining.  When they get into space, there is an increase in them to allow the film to quickly and wordlessly illustrate the maneuvers about to be performed, but that’s about it.  The footage itself gives us a look at the mission from all angles from the astronauts, to mission control, to the onlookers.  It’s very direct cinema and reminiscent of many of the documentaries of the period that the footage came from with no interviews or narration.  Naturally, it will draw a comparison to For All Mankind, which focused on all the Apollo missions and in the original cut had a similar approach, but I appreciated the more focused look this one offered as well as the decision to stick to the minimalist style.

The most iconic images make it in, but there’s so much fascinating stuff that I’ve never seen before which dominates it.  There’s some stunning imagery in there both on Earth and off especially the film takes from unreleased 70 mm footage.  The film is fond of the split screen approach (breaking the screen in to half or thirds), using it to contrast multiple views of the same shot in different qualities, show multiple things going on at the same time, or to help build up the tension more (something that is tied into the second example).

Speaking of, despite the film progressing along a well-trodden path narratively, it still manages to get plenty of suspense out of the editing from director/editor Todd Douglas Miller, those countdown clock which just leave me on edge, and with the music by Matt Morton.  Morton’s score (peaking during liftoff and during the TLI) seems to move with the crafts the astronauts are in, such as pulsing as they pick up speed and creating a really gripping effect.  There were a couple of times especially later on when I thought it could have been dialed back in use, but it was otherwise excellent.

Apollo 11‘s style helps it stand out from most of the documentaries which see a release and it’s a style that kept my hooked from beginning to end.  I had my issues with First Man and though this is taking a much different approach to the material, focusing instead on Armstrong as a person with the mission being merely one aspect of it (if the aspect we were all here for), it’s still one that renders the earlier film largely irrelevant.  The shots of the moon in that film just can’t match the grandeur of even the one panning shot of the moon here, the suspense is much better handled here, and of course it can’t be matched in all the loving detail that really interests me when it comes to this story.