Early in Apollo 11 there is this impossibly clear, incredibly close-up shot of the Saturn booster rocket taking off, lifting the Apollo 11 mission towards space. In this shot you can see the enormous nozzles which funnel the thunderous fire created in the main cylinder of the rocket, and the clarity of this shot lets you see every rivet, every overlapping plate, every spot where human hands had to touch and manipulate this metal to create the miracle you’re seeing before you.
It’s an overpowering moment, especially in IMAX. The screen is so huge that you almost get a sense of the scale of the thing (almost – it’s clear that these rockets are so big and the thrust so immense that even the IMAX screen shrinks them down), and the sound is so intense that the deep bass rumble almost disrupts your atoms. But it isn’t just the physical scale of it all that is overpowering; what makes Apollo 11 a brilliant film is how it captures both the material achievement of the mission and the spiritual achievement. In moments like that we are not only in awe of the size and fury of the rocket, we are overwhelmed with the knowledge that humans came together to do this thing, and to do it well.
Apollo 11 has no narrator, has no talking heads. It is made up almost exclusively of footage captured during the mission itself. Some of the footage is 16mm and herky jerky – they didn’t have room in that space capsule for good equipment – and some of it is simply draw-dropping in its beauty and grandeur. The film uses each to excellent advantage, getting personal and intimate with the home movie looking stuff, and getting epic and profoundly widescreen with the more static, landscape oriented shots.
The choice to avoid narration and let the narrative of the events speak for themselves makes Apollo 11 a truly immersive experience; after about ten minutes you’re not watching the mission, you’re living it. You’re watching from across the water, with the perfectly 1960s families. You’re sitting in Mission Control, smelling the smoke and the Aqua Velva. You’re strapped in the capsule, feeling the roar of a thousand suns just under your ass. And you’re also above it all, watching from every angle and position, hearing all, seeing all.
I guess that watching Apollo 11 on a regular movie screen is great – this is a great movie! – but watching it on an IMAX screen… this is literally God-level stuff. If you can see this movie in IMAX, please do so.
But if you can’t, please still see it. This is one of the most wonderful and important movies of the year, a movie that is designed as precisely as the Apollo 11 mission itself, but whose design is to enrich our souls and give us hope. It’s a movie that doesn’t get bogged down in politics, despite 1969 being a year of tumultuous politics. It’s a movie that hyper-focuses on this one achievement and celebrates it by returning it to us, taking it out of the history books and making it come completely alive.
The film is a testament to the magic of editing, a discipline whose Oscar the Academy of Motion PIcture Arts and Science wanted to move off the telecast this year. It’s insane, because without editing there literally are no movies – the juxtaposition of disparate images is the definition of cinema. And no film in recent memory does it like Apollo 11 does; this movie takes footage from the mission and arranges it in a way that the images themselves tell the story. The visuals alone tell the story, and the way Todd Douglas Miller – who directed and edited the film – puts things together is so staggering you would think he had staged some of the moments for dramatic function.
But he didn’t. It’s not always clear that every shot you’re watching takes place when it does in the narrative (these Mission Control herbs look pretty samey from day to day, so who knows when one sweep of the room actually was shot), but that doesn’t matter. Miller has combed through all of the available material to find the footage that tells a true emotional story, and that’s what counts.
That emotion is hope. This is a movie filled with hope, brimming with possibility. More than that, it’s a film that finds it’s hope in all people – it’s not just about Neil Armstrong’s historic first step on the Moon, but is about all of the people who came together to make that mission happen. Neil Armstrong was just the top of the human ladder, and he was standing on the shoulders of thousands – if not millions – to get to the lunar surface. Apollo 11 gets this fundamentally, and so it’s not a movie about the bravery of a few extraordinary men but rather about the ways people – ALL people – can come together in community to create something much bigger than any one of them.
Apollo 11 exists in stark contrast to First Man, and almost feels like an answer movie to it. In First Man Neil Armstrong is impossibly stoic, impossibly alone. He goes to the Moon and is sad about his dead daughter. In Apollo 11 Neil Armstrong is a humble leader but a happy guy – waving and smiling at crowds and trying his best to express his gratitude and honor.
But more than that, Apollo 11 gives us the context for what was already one of my favorite Armstrong photos. It’s Neil in the Eagle, after he and Buzz Aldrin have come inside from the surface of the Moon, and his eyes are red and watery, and a lock of hair playfully pokes out from under his spacesuit headwrap, and he has a smile on his face that is so full of happiness and joy that it transforms this man into a child. He’s as high as a fucking kite, and it’s all from the experience that he just had. This isn’t a morose man, this isn’t a man stewing in his inability to connect – it’s a man who transcended.
That still image of Armstrong is just one of the many times when I teared up watching Apollo 11. I’m a sucker for triumph, and I have the pleasure of suffering from Stendhal Syndrome, so I get teary-eyed a lot in good movies. But Apollo 11 had me leaking constantly, and it was from a mixture of the grand achievement of the mission and the astonishing audacity of the filmmaking.
And while Douglas is the front man here, cinematically, like Armstrong he’s standing on the shoulders of those before him. The list of cinematographers for the movie is long and impressive (Armstrong himself!) but even more impressive is the way that the names of the people involved in the mission come together at the end of the film to form the “11” in the title. It’s this final, sweet moment of underlining how this was the work of a team. That’s the hope Douglas finds, not in one man’s bravery but in the ability of thousands to come together to accomplish something for the world.
Apollo 11 comes at the optimum moment in our history. Now, facing down the barrel of the worsening climate crisis, we need to be reminded that when human beings come together we can accomplish impossible things. It was eight years between Kennedy making his promise and Armstrong walking on the Moon – the time between today and the release of the first Captain America movie. What can we do, in the next eight years, for all mankind?
If you enjoyed this piece, please consider supporting this blog by becoming a Patron at www.patreon.com/cinemasangha. All levels of support are financially and emotionally meaningful.