Sundance London 2019: Apollo 11 Review
50 years on from the moon landing (yes, it happened) you’d imagine it would be hard to introduce any new material to five decades of discussion that seem to have covered every conceivable aspect of the preparation, mission and arrival back on Earth. And yet, last year Damien Chazelle’s First Man managed to give us some insight into the madness that drove Neil Armstrong and co. to fly over 240,000 miles to another planet, and in what is sure to be in contention for some gongs come award season later in the year, Apollo 11 further crystallises events in stunning 8k and 16k resolution.
Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary is a throwback of sorts to the days of Direct Cinema during the late '50s and early '60s, telling the moon landing story from an observational standpoint. Given how saturated the topic has become Miller was initially a reluctant participant, but once he saw the results of the rescanned 65mm and 70mm footage from the National Archives, before stumbling across 11,000 hours of previously uncatalogued NASA audio recordings, he was all in.
The result is a jaw-dropping re-examination of the work done by the team at Mission Control who were so pivotal in getting the astronaut team up onto the lunar surface and safely back home again. The vast majority of moon landing films and documentaries have focussed heavily on the flight crew in their preparations for obvious reasons. However, NASA were wise enough to have multiple cameras positioned on-site on the day, capturing almost every aspect and angle of the mission on film before the big launch on 16 July 1969.
Fifty years are wiped away in the blink of an eye thanks to the use of high definition imagery, adding an unexpected tension to events as they unfold. It opens with the Apollo 11 rocket being slowly hauled into position using a crawler transporter, while the ground workers get to work in preparation for lift-off. What separates this documentary from the countless others about the subject is the insight it provides about the staff in Mission Control, where countless rows of men wearing crisp white work shirts and skinny black ties (women barely seem to exist in this period it seems) work tirelessly to oversee the miniature of the entire project. These essential cogs in the NASA wheel have rarely been given a voice until now, thanks to Miller and his team’s tireless work to sync the discovered audio recordings with the mouth movements on film.
The footage also reveals the sense of anticipation building around the country (and no doubt the world) at the time. Houston locals gathered in their thousands to make a day of the event, with family and friends perched close to their cars under the baking sun to catch a glimpse of man’s attempt to step foot on another planet. There are no talking heads or narration provided, as the clarity of the footage draws you into the moment, and the audio recordings serve as a background guide with countdown approaching, continuing once Armstrong and his crew have left the Earth’s atmosphere.
The strength of the digital scanning has turned what is now taken for granted back into what this madman mission should always be viewed as: an utterly unique and astonishing technical achievement. A close-up of the bellowing fire raging from the rocket boosters as it leaves its stationery position is breath-taking, and as on many occasions throughout Miller's documentary, it turns normality into an alien concept that can take a few minutes to process.
That momentum gained in the first half would be hard to maintain in any film, and once we ascended into space the image quality available on-board the rocket and the moon itself struggle to compete. Which is no fault of Miller, his team or anyone else, as little can be done about 50-year-old footage shot on a camera hundreds of thousands of miles away from Earth. You would think it would take a miracle to update that kind of imagery, and yet, the wonder of modern technology has conjured up these sensational pictures, much in the same way that it transported human life out of this world half a century ago.
Apollo 11 can be seen at this year's Sundance London and also opens in UK cinemas on June 28.