Almost fifty years ago, amidst an intensifying space-race between NASA and the Soviet Space Programme, the very first men landed on the moon. The event which took place in July 1969 became one of the most watched broadcasts in history when an estimated 600 million people tuned in to watch the moment Commander Neil Armstrong and lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin go where no other man had been before them.
In his brilliant new documentary feature Apollo 11, director Todd Douglas Miller offers a comprehensive insight into the events that led to the Moon Landing. Using solely archival footage, including a 70 mm film that was previously unreleased to the public, Miller was able to construct a whole story around the original broadcast.
The film starts as the mission gets on the way from Cape Canaveral (renamed Cape Kennedy at the time in honour of JFK). As a colourful crowd in vibrant 60s garb gathers all along the launch site, with some people camped out for days before hand, there is a sense of momentum rising which reaches fever pitch once the astronauts are seen making their way onto the shuttle.
In direct contrast with the carnival atmosphere on the launch site, back at NASA HQ in Houston, the mood appears far more solemn as a hard-working team of technicians and scientists start to realise the enormity of the day. With each last minute hiccup dealt with a cool and collected manner, there is almost a serene atmosphere which signals that failure was never going to be an option for any of these men and women.
Using almost no new commentary beyond what was used in the original broadcast, Miller does a great job in capturing the period in full and is able to translate the excitement felt first-hand during those crucial hours. Further more, the director is able to put to rest almost every single question surrounding the mission from start to finish, despite forgoing any type of traditional talking-heads or interviews.
With a strong “cinéma vérité” aesthetic which takes the audience to the heart of the unravelling story, we are often reminded of Damien Chazelle’s excellent Armstrong biopic First Man which appears to owe a huge debt to some of original footage used here, especially in the Chazelle’s depiction of Armstrong’s cool and collected nature. There are moments of huge tension and others of unbridled excitement and pride at the way this mission was handled and what it meant to humanity as a whole.
Just like Senna, Asif Kapadia’s award winning documentary about the life and death of Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, Apollo 11 does a great job in capturing a fleeting moment in time with a great deal of tenderness and respect for the people behind the story. Apollo 11 is so much more than just a documentary, it is a masterpiece in storytelling which deserves to be seen on the biggest screen one could possibly find. Truly breathtaking beauty throughout.