Review: Apollo 11 (2019)


The strength of a documentary depends largely on the strength of its nonfiction footage. That’s why a film like Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is stunning despite the fact that it’s little more than propaganda: it has overwhelming verite footage of the Euromaidan in Kyiv in November 2013—footage that makes the film essential, even if the message the filmmaker is forwarding is not. Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 is not nearly as nationalistic as Winter on Fire, but even if it were the celebration of American exceptionalism that some critics may mistake it as, its footage is so stunning that the film instantly becomes an essential document of human achievement, regardless of messaging.

Comprised entirely of archival footage, much of it unreleased 65mm footage filmed by Theo Kamecke and audio recordings of the Apollo 11 launch and moon landing, Apollo 11 is a work of editing above all else. Like Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy, it uses only archival footage to tell a chronological story of an historical event. However, unlike those films, there is no narration to guide the viewer along. To be sure, there are discussions of the mission throughout, but these are provided by the mission control team and astronauts themselves in the moment, as opposed to historians or aeronautics experts giving their take in retrospect (although unlike For All Mankind, it does include on-screen titles). This approach, and the superb quality of the footage, make the film live as if in an eternal present, seeming to unfold before our eyes instead of recounting an event from the past that all of humanity is aware of.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this formal restriction, Apollo 11 is not lacking for clarity nor exposition. In fact, the film is an efficient engine of narrative construction, beginning the morning of the launch of Apollo 11 and ending with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins’ return to earth nine days later. Miller has edited the film for maximum clarity, which is no small achievement for a film sifted out of thousands of hours of footage. If anyone still foolishly thinks the Moon Landing was faked, the footage in Apollo 11 should finally disabuse them of the notion.

But as I said in the opening, the footage itself is the real star of Apollo 11. It is breathtaking, but also eye-opening, giving us surprising vantage points to watch the mission. Certain shots seem almost impossible. For instance, in one moment, we watch as the Command and Service Module detaches from the launch rocket, but the camera is placed on the front of the rocket itself, so the frame is positioned behind the Command and Service Module, watching as it leaves the rocket, and us, behind. Another shot follows a docking procedure, when the Command and Service Module detaches from the Lunar Module, turns around, and reattaches to it. The camera holds on the outside of the Command and Service Module and we even see bolts rattle in the vacuum of space after docking has completed. That this footage was captured, and retrieved, is remarkable.

Furthermore, the quality of the footage cannot be overstated. This is pristine cinematography, without any of the degradations of age or the haphazardness of accidental historical documentation. In fact, the similarity in clothing and hairstyles between the 1960s and today almost makes you mistake it for present day footage at points. As well, Miller often lets us see familiar footage in a new way by split screening between the new, unreleased 65mm footage and the grainy, standard resolution footage that was broadcast over television in 1969. One shot of the earth through the back window of the spacecraft is familiar to anyone who has seen footage of the mission before, but the new, unreleased 65mm print of the same shot transforms the moment from a historical artifact into a vibrant, startlingly clear depiction of our world. It sheds a whole new light on iconic footage and reignites our wonder and awe of the mission.

Apollo 11 is a triumph of preservation, restoration, and documentation above all else. For fans of science fiction and space travel, it’ll dazzle with its clear vision of life beyond the earth, but even for more casual observers of NASA and the history of the space race, it has the capacity to wow viewers. It once again reiterates that the moon landing is one of the most significant events in human history.

8 out of 10

Apollo 11 (2019, USA)

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller.