Apollo 11 - Review

Gorgeous, detailed, and seamless, Apollo 11 is a document from another time in American history.

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The Moon landing was all about scale. The insurmountable technical feat required to achieve the 1960’s-era dream is chronicled beautifully in Apollo 11, in what feels like the final word on a remarkable time for American engineers, and the entirety of the human race.

Unlike the various fictional spinoffs that bear a passing resemblance to the 1969 event, Apollo 11 relays the events as simply as possible. In line with its name, this is a film about the launch, the landing, and the return, all told in chronological order with minimal skips in time. That’s all great and convenient, but the first thing you are likely to notice is the quality of the footage: I wouldn’t put it past people if they started looking for actors amongst the sea of spectators awaiting the launch, if only because the film appears so startlingly modern. Widescreen, loud and colorful, the trademark 60s grain is almost entirely absent, replaced by cool, soft photography that highlights both the natural and the man-made in the bizarre feat.

A labor of love sprouting from a chance encounter, director Todd Douglas Miller set out to make a direct account of the Moon landing when he began production on Apollo 11 in 2016. He met with Stephen Slater, who at the time had synched several audio recordings with 16mm footage from various control rooms, and the foundation was laid. There would be no voice-over, no cuts to modern-day: instead, Apollo 11 would attempt to retell the eight-day experience directly. In 2017, Miller began cooperating with NASA as well as the National Archives and Records Administration, which provided unreleased 70mm footage of the launch, the hours before and after it, and much more. Post-production was completed through Final Frame, with custom hardware designed specifically for transfering the ancient reels to digital. Film restorations are an increasingly popular medium of delivery, whether through Blu-Ray re-releases or 4K, but Apollo 11’s restored footage is practically the reason it exists. There is no describing the quality of the images in the film, but seeing them in widescreen returns many of the grand old-Hollywood feelings of films like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music. This is the moon landing chronicled in widescreen, blown-up to resemble the enormity of the situation, pulled directly from its time with zero interjections.

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The few additions made come in the form of timers, edits, and not much else. The editing of the film is, as in most documentaries, a character itself, spinning the entire story based on the director and editor’s whim. There is a definite timeline to work with on Apollo 11, but it jettisons any kinds of interviews, opinions, or speculation. It’s chronological, audio and film synchronized for the first time on screen, presenting a picture fuller than anything schoolteachers have pulled off YouTube. In a way, it feels like the last word on Moon landing documentaries. The scale is massive, stories exist within the larger one, and the display of ingenuity is rendered in fitting detail.