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Documentary Apollo 11 makes the moonshot feel like yesterday

APOLLO 11
directed by Todd Douglas Miller

The footage speaks for itself as the scale, effort and majesty of the 1969 moon landing are laid bare.

It has been 50 years since humankind, embodied by a nerdy, reserved Ohioan named Neil Armstrong, took that first tentative step on an extraterrestrial body. But it is an event seared into our consciousness, an event so monumental, so incomprehensible now, that we can only marvel from the distance of history – a gulf to the past that seems as wide as the space between Earth and Moon.

The documentary Apollo 11, in its very first shot, totally collapses that distance and brings us into their present tense. Against a Florida sky, as crisply blue as if we were looking up at our own, giant steel caterpillar tracks loom, bearing the behemoth Saturn V rocket to its launch pad. From the vertigo-inducing gantry tower alongside it, we peer downwards. Only now, blown up to fill the screen, can we register the flickers of hesitation, of anxiety, that crease the astronauts’ faces as they are strapped and sealed, some 20 hours before boarding their craft, into spacesuits.

Recording the Apollo programme was a huge audio-visual project. From the Moon-going flights, there are about 32,000 photographs. From that 11th mission alone came 11,000 hours of audio and several tonnes of 16, 35, and 65mm film. It is this wealth of documentation that director Todd Douglas Miller trawled to assemble Apollo 11.

These are images of astonishing clarity, colour, presence and power. When, with a roar that nearly deafens, those volcano engines spit fire and begin to heave from the Earth … There is nothing else in Apollo 11 – hell, in any other documentary – that can approach the heart-stopping miracle of such a moment.

What follows, we already know well: Michael Collins makes his lonely voyage to the dark side of the Moon; Armstrong lands the Eagle with only 20 seconds of fuel remaining and utters his garbled first words; Buzz Aldrin’s quip upon descending the ladder, “I want to back up and partially close the hatch … making sure not to lock it on my way out.” Then there is the extraordinary phenomenon that space voyagers called “Earthrise”.

All of it features in Apollo 11, but shown from unseen perspectives, left to play out long past the iconic pictures we’re so familiar with. There is, mercifully, no narration in the film save for thick, rough, muffled bursts of radio chatter and the occasional sonorous snippet of Walter Cronkite marvelling at this greatest of adventures.

In Apollo 11, the majesty of the enterprise has been accentuated to feel astonishingly contemporary, ecstatic and euphoric.

IN CINEMAS FROM AUGUST 29

★★★

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.