‘Apollo 11’ Review: The 1969 Moon Mission Still Has the Power to Thrill

‘Apollo 11’ Review: The 1969 Moon Mission Still Has the Power to Thrill

The documentary “Apollo 11,” directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, is entirely awe-inspiring. Which is something of a surprise. As world events of the 20th century go, Apollo 11, the NASA mission of 1969 that put two men on the moon, has been thoroughly documented. It’s also been fictionally dissected, most recently by Damien Chazelle, whose 2018 film, “First Man,” is a portrait of Neil Armstrong, the mission’s commander and, yes, the first man to walk on the moon. In addition to chronicling that triumph, that film examines Armstrong’s emotional reticence.

Miller’s documentary indirectly points out why such a quality is valued in astronauts. Beginning with the shots of a crawler-transporter hauling the Saturn V rocket to the Cape Canaveral launch pad, and Walter Cronkite’s newscast oratory providing the only overt narrative setup the movie will avail itself of, “Apollo 11” dispassionately lays out just how many things needed to go exactly right for this mission to be accomplished. And as many of the things that could possibly go wrong, the movie also implies that it’s only giving you the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

The film consists primarily of newly discovered archival footage, some of which has never been seen before in a film. But Miller doesn’t rely entirely on it. He uses simple but effective white-on-black graphics, graphic animations and, occasionally, footage set up in split-screen to highlight particularly harrowing maneuvers, to convey the complications of the actions the Apollo 11 crew had to so precisely execute. The impact is nearly mind-boggling. On the return-to-earth leg of the journey the crew cuts loose a little more, listening to a weightless cassette player from which emits the folk-country tune “Mother Country” by John Stewart.

Recordings from Houston’s mission control track key moments, including the heart rates of Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins at crucial junctures during the eight-day mission. At launch, according to the flight surgeon’s report, Armstrong’s heart rate is up to 110 beats per minute. Collins’s is at 99, while Aldrin, cool as a cucumber, has a rate of 88.

“First Man” reminded viewers of the complex physical and emotional challenges that come from work as an astronaut. And “Apollo 11” further demonstrates that hardly anyone but an aerospace engineer and a voluminous support team can get close to doing the math required for this endeavor.

For all that, “Apollo 11” is not entirely devoid of romance. Although we know how the mission turns out, the movie generates and maintains suspense. And it rekindles a crazy sense of wonder at, among other things, what one can do practically with trigonometry.

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