By Jim Slotek
To paraphrase an axiom, “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t figure out what to do with priceless archival footage.”
‘They’ in this case is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which had the foresight to commission – for promotional purposes - wonderful 65 and 70 mm footage of almost everything to do with the Apollo 11 mission that saw Neil Armstrong put the first human footprints on lunar soil 50 years ago. And then most of it sat in storage and buried in archives, and for all we know, broom closets.
Happily, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller – the director of the spectacular IMAX-adapted documentary Apollo 11 - and various archivists, unearthed this “lost” treasure trove and approached it with a storyteller’s eye and attention to detail.
We’re not just talking about the astronauts donning their suits, or the ocean of white-shirted black-tied technicians monitoring telemetry on primitive consoles, or the on-camera video of spent booster rockets dropping away into the atmosphere as the mission broke free of Earth’s gravity.
Instead, Apollo 11 (which recently debuted to cheers at Sundance) is as amazing when it’s Earthbound as it is when it enters the vastness of space. We see nearby motel balconies filled with people prior to liftoff, a middle-aged man sipping a can of beer in a parking lot and staring at the Saturn V rocket in the distance. In the summer Florida heat, we see beads of sweat meander down the faces of onlookers. The clothes, the hairstyles, the crispness and unwashed colour of the images, all make us feel as if we’ve been dropped into the throngs of onlookers who might now be our grandparents.
Narratively, Apollo 11 is disarmingly simple, starting on the day of lift-off and ending at splashdown. But small details tell a larger story. The off-hand narration comes from a mix of NASA countdown status feeds and news reports, the most resonant bearing the unmistakable voice of Walter Cronkite (we learn that the Vietnam War was virtually on pause during the mission, perhaps the most stark demonstration of the extent to which Apollo 11 riveted the entire planet).
The outside world is seamlessly allowed to enter in another scene, where Mission Control updates Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on the latest news – including Sen. Ted Kennedy’s infamous Chappaquiddick car crash that resulted in the death of his campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne. (The indecipherable response sounds like, “well I’ll be darned”).
As for the astronauts themselves, we obviously don’t get the personal deep dive into their personalities that we got from Damien Chazelle’s terrific and cruelly overlooked Armstrong biopic First Man. But the telemetry that monitors their physical responses to this unimaginably stressful mission speaks volumes.
It turns out that the ebullient Aldrin always had the lowest heart rate. And the cool-as-ice Armstrong? Always the highest. When he pulled off the last-minute change of landing site in the Sea of Tranquility that left them with 16 seconds of fuel to spare, his heart-rate was above 150 beats per minute. That is a lot of buried stress.
There is, of course, a marked difference between the sparkling 70 mm pre-launch story and the one in space (the Saturn V, in particular, is blindingly majestic, lit up on the gantry waiting for its moment). But the lower-quality footage is smartly used. A grainy, close-up steps-angle video view captures both Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s descent to the surface as if we were standing next to them. And footage from the lunar module of the command module and vice versa is edited dramatically as the vehicles get closer to docking, ending in an audible clunk.
Apollo 11 is ultimately the finest look back to the anniversary of this historic event you’ll see this year.
Apollo 11. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller. Starring Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Opens Friday, March 1 in selected markets with IMAX theatres. Opens Friday, March 8 in theatres nationwide.