Apollo 11's Trip to The Moon is Still a Thrill

FILM REVIEW on March 14, 2019

By Loren King

The Apollo 11 moon landing took place 50 years ago, but images from that monumental event are as majestic and breathtaking as those beamed back to earth from outer space in July 1969.

One doesn’t have to be a space exploration enthusiast to appreciate what the new documentary, “Apollo 11,” delivers, which is a first-hand account, told entirely through the images and sound recorded at the time, of what is still one of the most remarkable feats of modern history.

“Apollo 11,” now in select theaters. including the Jane Pickens Theater, is directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller. He uses newly discovered archival footage from the NASA vaults, most of which has never been seen before, mixed with news footage of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins preparing for the mission, and stage-setting shots of the Saturn V rocket on the Cape Canaveral, Florida launch pad, as well as the massive apparatus surrounding it.

As thrilling as this footage is, just as fascinating are the images of the crowds, with cameras and binoculars and kids in tow, gathered on motel balconies and on the beach to watch the take-off, and the news crews and photographers alongside them. Their cameras and equipment may look vintage, but the technology employed by NASA on the ground and as the crew hurtles through space looks futuristic even today.

Miller doesn’t employ talking heads. But there is a narration of sorts provided by Walter Cronkite’s newscast over the course of the eight-day mission that grounds the viewer and offers insight into the occasionally confusing maneuvers taking place after liftoff. Miller also uses some white-on-black graphics and animation to illustrate the mechanics of the trip to the moon and the landing, which is still a heart-in-the-throat moment.

Meanwhile, on the ground at both Cape Canaveral and in Houston, the massive NASA teams that controlled the mission’s every move are tracked, with the original sound, in split-screen. This is particularly effective during risky maneuvers, of which there were many. Like all great mysteries and thrillers, just because we know the ending of this journey, it’s no less captivating to get there.

The three astronauts are revealed in small ways in the documentary, though for a closer look into their personalities and emotional states one would do better to revisit Damien Chazelle’s underrated “First Man” from earlier this year. That film focused on the emotional life of Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) and his journey to becoming, almost randomly, the man who took that small step onto the ashy lunar surface. That was an exhilarating moment in “First Man” and it’s pretty stunning in the documentary to view the actual footage of Armstrong, followed some 20 minutes later by Aldrin, strolling buoyantly in their spacesuits on the moon.

Collins, meanwhile, had the crucial role of orbiting the moon in his capsule until the precise moment when the two crafts had to meet up and re-engage for the return trip.

What’s just as revealing, though, are the images that the flight crew recorded from outer space, shot through the small window of the capsule. The dark craters along the edge of the moon, the shots of planet earth far off in the distance, are images that have been recreated by science fiction movies such as “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But that renders the actual footage even more spectacular and almost unfathomable.

Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were not only witnessing these otherworldly sights but recording them for the world and for future generations. To see them now, accompanied by Matt Morton’s majestic electronic score, is a profound reminder that, quite simply, the universe is a pretty big place and modern-day space exploration likely scratched just the surface. Just getting there was enough of a feat. That this fantastic voyage still has the power to astound and humble us is an added gift.