A camera rushes past a series of computer banks. One, two, three, four, fiv- NASA’s mission control appears endless. Behind each monitor sits an operator sporting the same white collared shirt and a regulated crew cut. Each man charged with various dials and switches impossible to comprehend for the layman. Flip the wrong one, or rotate one dial too far counterclockwise, and the Saturn V rocket won’t make its launch deadline.
On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human to place his foot on the surface of the Moon. Nineteen minutes later, Buzz Aldrin was man number two. Michael Collins monitored from the command module orbiting above and watched with the rest of the world as two individuals grasped a frontier that most thought impossible just 10 years prior.
We’ve all seen the footage. We’ve read the textbooks, maybe even watched a few interviews with those responsible for this historic human reach. We’ve certainly enjoyed the reenactments of events leading up to that moment, everything from The Right Stuff to First Man to an episode of Quantum Leap. While we acknowledge that it might be impossible to understand truly what these men went through to land on the Sea of Tranquility, we also get the gist. Fifty years ago, our species broke free from the borders of our planet and took the first step in exploring a great, unimaginable beyond.
Nevermind the political motivations, or the domestic strife rumbling on the streets, or Ted Kennedy’s car accident. The Apollo 11 spaceflight marks one of our grandest achievements, and the result was an inevitable dismissal by history. Today, at best, the mission gets a chapter in a high school textbook, maybe just a page or two. Some hang on to this epic moment through nostalgia, grasping at the iconography through movies, books, and bumper stickers. The event is little more than a memory; acknowledged but not absorbed.
With the exhaustively assembled documentary Apollo 11, director Todd Douglas Miller (Dinosaur 13) puts his hands on our shoulders and delivers a serious cinematic shaking. The titular mission was more than the work of a handful of men, and it amounts to more than a postage stamp. A treasure trove of newly discovered 65mm archival footage and more than 11,000 hours of audio recordings have been restored and mined from to assemble the most sumptuous, obsessive celebration of NASA ever constructed. Damn your textbooks, damn your polite concession of history.
Using only the words of that time, from the people who were there, Miller grants unprecedented access to a contemporary audience. More than a fly on a wall, you’re physically planted at one of those mission control computers banks, or within the module, or on the flight deck of the USS Hornet waiting to initiate capsule recovery. Not being professionals, we may not fathom the meaning of each switch flipped, wrench turned, or command given, but we understand the gravity of the actions taken in a way never before realized. This was not a miracle. It was the culmination of our humanity.
There is no outside world in Apollo 11. There are brief chirps from broadcasters issuing context to events transpiring outside, but the film, like the mission, cannot be distracted. Apollo 11 champions the efforts of countless technicians, engineers, and mechanics as well as the three men that finally took us to the Moon. Miller has created a definitive statement on one of our proudest moments and a reminder that we are still capable of delivering greatness.