To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of what remains humanity’s most astounding achievement, director Todd Douglas Miller was granted a unique level of access to NASA’s archives. During his research, Miller and his team happened to uncover a wealth of previously unseen 70 mm focused around the launch and re-entry of Apollo 11, the lunar spacecraft that made history.
With this new footage at his disposal, along with the wealth of pre-existing footage ranging from 35-16 mm and television coverage, Miller has constructed a unique and incredibly efficient account of the greatest journey we have undertaken, one which follows the journey from the launch pad in Florida all the way to the astronauts re-entry in the North Pacific Ocean.
Employing a very direct style, Miller opts to avoid the use of voice-over and talking heads. This is a documentary entirely made up of footage and sound that is from the time, with the meticulous editing allowing all the various different pieces to flow together as we follow both the three men aboard the craft and those back at mission control as they set out to make this a successful mission.
We have been exposed to so much coverage of the Apollo 11 mission in various different documentaries, TV specials and movies (as recently as last year with Damien Chazelle’s under-rated First Man), that it can be easy to forget just how difficult the damn thing was to pull off. This very much seems to be the mission objective of Miller’s Apollo 11. Right from the thunderous blast off, this documentary addresses, with a great degree of urgency, just how risky every step of the journey was. Chronicling everything from the launch, the flight itself, landing on the moon, to taking back off and re-docking, to finally re-entry on Earth, the thriller-like nature of this doc emphasises the risk at every step. No matter how many times these men had practiced, no matter how good the calculations were, there was never any sense of a guaranteed success.
While Miller’s use of dramatic techniques to heighten the danger of each step may occasionally feel a little repetitive (ticking clock, ominous synth score), there is no denying the meticulous nature and the craft of his approach. That aforementioned synth score does an incredible amount for setting up a tense atmosphere, and while we know the outcome, the finely tuned editing undoubtedly makes this a tense experience from the off. It all makes for an incredibly compact and efficient documentary that manages to convey the difficulties and risks involved, while not forgetting to dovetail in details that articulate the unifying nature of this achievement across the entire world.
What truly makes this film a must-see experience is, of course, the footage that Miller has used throughout. The 70 mm footage is absolutely astonishing in both its content and its crispness. There’s a great deal of footage in here that feels like it could’ve been shot yesterday, such is the awe-inspiring nature of its quality. The sense of scale conveyed by this footage is also breath-taking, reminding you just how much of an astronomical achievement in design and engineering this whole enterprise truly was.
The same can be said for the footage that many of us may already be familiar with. If you’re like me, you’ll never not be fascinated by any footage that comes from the edge of our atmosphere or from the lunar surface itself. Seeing this footage on a big screen (and I suggest you find the biggest screen you possibly can) has the power to throw you into a child-like state of wonder, with Miller’s tightly constructed, little fuss approach, allowing this to feel like a roller-coaster ride during some of its more tense moments, fuelled by a sense of awe throughout.
Apollo 11 takes the story of the journey you know, and strips it back to its bare nuts and bolts, providing an on-screen adventure that opts more for visceral thrills than it does an in-depth examination of the mission. It allows this to be a unique take on the mission, driven more by feeling than facts and accounts, while also acting as a sharp reminder of the dangers and risks involved at every step. Through the use of astounding footage and good ol’ lean, mean craft, Apollo 11 brings mankind’s greatest mission to new, pulse-pounding life.
Dir & Editor: Todd Douglas Miller
Prd: Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Petersen and Evan Krauss
DoP: Adam Holender
Music: Matt Morton
Country: United States
Runtime: 93 minutes
Apollo 11 is released in UK cinemas on 28th June