Critics got a chance to see director Todd Douglas Miller's "Apollo 11" — out in theaters now — back at Sundance. Here's what they thought of quality of the unique footage, the documentary's no-narration approach and how it compares to "First Man."
Presentation-Wise, It's An Austere Account Of The Mission That Feels More Engaging Thanks To The New Footage
It was inevitable that some movie about the first moon landing would be released in 2019, the 50th anniversary of Armstrong and Aldrin's stroll on the lunar surface. But Miller's documentary still packs surprises, because in the buildup to that anniversary, a momentous discovery was made at the National Archives: a hoard of never-developed film from the Apollo 11 mission was unearthed, some of it in 70mm.
Mostly, this is a blow-by-blow of the mission, condensing eight days in space to less than 80 minutes of screen time. Restricted to existing footage plus some explanatory graphics, the filmmakers manage to explore all facets of a mission that mostly ran like clockwork — and while you wouldn't be in the theater if you didn't know how it ends, they manage to throw in enough small surprises and inventive touches to keep a familiar story from flagging.
It Doesn't Inject Personal Drama Or Condescend To The Audience By Rehashing Things Or Drumming Up Suspense
The movie contains no voice-over and no talking heads, so we don't get much interiority from the astronauts, but Miller does give us a little bit of backstory in the form of brief, wordless montages of pivotal events in each man's life. Armstrong's comes first, and I chuckled a bit at how effectively the editors were able to condense the first 90 minutes of ["First Man"] into a ten-second summary.
Apollo 11 is a documentary that practically demands a certain amount of homework be done beforehand, and it enters into a contract with the viewer that perhaps more documentaries should require. It says, "You know this history, at least vaguely. We're not going to waste your time on hand-holding or explanations. In exchange, we'll give you the story you know in a way you haven't seen it told before and we'll do it without filler."
The 'New' Footage Was Very Well-Preserved, To The Point Where Even The More Mundane Stuff Is Awe-Inspiring
The footage, which was largely taken from a newly discovered trove of 65mm film, looks so crisp, so clean, so impossibly high definition that you would think it was filmed last week on the set of a '60s-themed TV show rather than 50 years earlier.
It's rare that picture quality can inspire a physical reaction, but the opening moments of "Apollo 11," in which a NASA camera crew roams around the base of the rocket and spies on some of the people who've come to gawk at it from a beach across the water, are vivid enough to melt away the screen that stands between them. The clarity takes your breath away, and it does so in the blink of an eye; your body will react to it before your brain has time to process why, after a lifetime of casual interest, you're suddenly overcome by the sheer enormity of what it meant to leave the Earth and land somewhere else.
Shutting down conspiracy theorists probably wasn't high on director Todd Douglas Miller's to-do list when he was making the documentary Apollo 11. So just consider it a bonus that his film about the first manned moon landing is so immersive that it feels like it's happening in real-time on screen — and definitively un-faked.
Getting Such A Good Look At Ground Control, Cape Canaveral And The Rocket
Close-ups of text-only computer monitors and pencil-on-paper calculations reveal the project's reliance on human smarts and dedication. Ordering a pair of socks online today involves more computing muscle than NASA had in 1969.
If the massive NASA hardware is the ultimate motion picture "practical effect," then the life-or-death situations that Armstrong and his fellow travelers faced are the ultimate "dramatic complication." Even knowing in advance that everyone will survive, it's still intense to hear their chatter, and to see the crucial numbers tick down.
There's a fantastic design to it, of course; the machines are like a heavy-duty form of magic, and the voyage comes off like clockwork. But what the images channel is the wonder of the unprecedented.
Apollo 11 juxtaposes massive feats of scale — groundbreaking engineering, built with thousands of minds in cooperation — with mid-century modern ketchup packets and outdated bathing caps. That Miller's film allows you, without commentary, to make meaning of these contrasts — the whole of Earth in one shot, a parking lot PB&J snack shack in another — feels like a radical act of trust.
The Throwback Score And Music Picks Are Mostly-Welcome Accompaniment, Too
Another source of drama is Matt Morton's music, which throbs and pulses — before turning, unfortunately, a little too honeyed at the end. In the spirit of the era, Morton used only analog synthesizers that were available in 1969. Like the engineers who somehow managed to send a man to the moon in the pre-PC era, Morton's score makes the most of its technical limitations.
Composer Matt Morton and sound designer Eric Milano are particular MVPs in this undertaking, though the sonic palette also gets a fun tweak when Miller and his team feature some of the songs that were on cassette tapes made for the Apollo 11 astronauts. Most notable is "Mother Country," a stirring anthem from former Kingston Trio member John Stewart that plays during the re-entry scenes. (Of course, the song does undergo some judicious editing — removing the lines where the main character dies, for instance.)
The tension of the moment makes sense because of the data, the ever-closer destination and Matt Morton's score which, at its best, takes on a Reznor-esque ambient drone. Before it becomes perhaps excessively melodic at the end, Morton's compositions wisely opt to combine with Eric Milano's sound design to build a high pressure, unsettled mood without attempting to manipulate viewer response.
Just The Fact That We're Getting A Largely New, Up-Close Look At The Mission 50 Years Later Is Fascinating
Anodyne wide shots of distant onlookers and uneventful frames of the rocket poking its head into the Kodachrome sky are every bit as magical as the footage of the launch itself, or the scores of suit-and-tie NASA scientists making things go from inside Mission Control (this is where the new audio comes in handy, as Miller is able to sync the chatter to the action for the first time, and humanize this moment of history by sharing the nerves and camaraderie that went into it behind the scenes).
This is footage shot to chronicle and promote the event as it was happening, a mixture of propaganda, fly-on-the-wall documentation of the historical moment and the on-board recordings accumulated for future expeditions[…] It's a film presented completely in-the-present and largely without the weight of dramatic irony you might get from showy editing or a melodramatic score.
Some of the footage looks familiar, as of course it would in any telling of a story that was so widely documented and so endlessly rewatched. But other scenes almost come as a shock, as Miller unearths shots that seem too vivid, too visceral to have come from the vaults.
The result is a stunning project of historical preservation — no narration, no cutaway interviews, no recreations, just original material synced with some music and the occasional diagram.
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