The 2017 discovery of previously unseen 70mm film footage of the 1969 Apollo 11 missions appears to have partly inspired this 50th anniversary documentary, released in 2019 and directed by Todd Douglas Miller. Miller’s film has a very precise creative intent, and as long as that intent exactly matches the wants of the viewer, this is an exceptional addition to the ranks of NASA-based factual pictures. Negative criticism of the film, however slight, feels redundant: if this is not the moon landing documentary that you want, it is because Miller did not want to make that particular film.
There are a few explanatory captions during Apollo 11, and some very clean and easy-to-understand animated diagrams. Everything else in the film consists of archival footage. New and restored 70mm sequences, home movies, news footage, and film and video shot onboard the Apollo space capsules by astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. The film begins in the immediate lead-up to the Apollo 11 launch from Kennedy Space Centre, and ends after the conclusion of the mission. There is no freshly recorded voiceover or narration, nor are there the standard “talking heads” interviews that typically populate documentaries of this kind. Instead Miller has put together a complete record of Apollo 11, start to finish, without comment or analysis. The authorial element is entirely in the edit, and in Matt Morton’s propulsive, slightly intrusive musical score. It is, ultimately, real life cut down to an action film.
There is enormous value in that, too. All in all, Apollo 11 lasted about eight days from launch to splashdown, and Miller condenses that down to the most interesting 93 minutes. The footage presented on screen is stirring and emotive. Some of the shots of the moon and the Earth are honestly jaw-dropping in their impact. All of the effects astronauts have felt and expressed over the decades can be felt, at least in a safely cathartic form, within the documentary. The fragility of the Earth. The majesty of the moon. The terrifying emptiness of space. It is all there.
Of course, what Apollo 11 lacks is the relating of those feelings to better inform the viewer. This is not a fault, because that is not the intent of this documentary. It is, however, a gap, and that is why the best way to view Apollo 11 is likely not in isolation but in tandem. David Sington’s 2007 documentary In the Shadow of the Moon turns out to be the perfect companion to Miller’s effort. Like Miller’s film, In the Shadow focuses on NASA’s Apollo missions. It follows a different path, however, relying predominantly on first-person accounts by Apollo astronauts of their lunar experience. Apollo 11 demonstrates the awe-inspiring process of going to the moon, while In the Shadow tells you how it felt. Placed together, and viewed in either order, both films form a comprehensive, immensely emotional package. Your next Friday night movie double is right here; you can thank me later.