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‘Apollo 11’ still soars after half a century

‘Apollo 11’ still soars after half a century

Courtesy of Attvideo

The phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” is probably one of the most iconic uttered in the 20th century. It is no wonder, then, that 50 years after the historic Apollo 11 mission, landing men on the moon still holds such a fascination with the American public. The documentary “Apollo 11” takes this fascination and runs with it, giving the audience a real taste of what it’s like to journey to the moon – an astonishing experience from beginning to end.

The inspiration for the documentary came when filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller discovered unreleased 70 mm film reels taken of Apollo 11 in the National Archives, chronicling the mission unlike previously-accounted-for records. Miller took the “direct cinema” route with the film, featuring no modern-day interviews and instead choosing to simply show Apollo 11 as it happened, to great effect. 

This grants the viewer an astonishing look at the events of July 1969, starting with the Saturn V rocket being transferred from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch complex. The massive rocket dwarfs all who stand around it, and it quickly dawns on the viewer that this isn’t a special effect or a scale model on a green screen. This is the real deal – in amazing high-definition, too.

Audiences see the men and women at Mission Control in Houston; Americans from all walks of life lining the streets and beaches of Florida to watch the launch; and Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins suiting up for the mission. Snapshots of the astronauts’ lives are shown briefly, humanizing them as mere people doing a dangerous job rather than mythical legends.

Then comes the launch, quite possibly the most stunning part of the movie. Every other film and documentary on Apollo 11 has used the same set of camera angles during the launch – looking down at the Saturn V as it clears the tower, the ice cascading down from the vibrating spacecraft and so on – but “Apollo 11” gives the audience something they’ve never seen before: a full-on, top-to-bottom look at the Saturn V as it lifts off, in spectacular widescreen format. 

And it is truly spectacular, in a way that is too stunning to put into words. The documentary not only shows the rocket lift off, but also the fiery exhaust blasting out below it. Viewers see the Saturn V shoot through the sky like a bullet, the air flowing over it at supersonic speeds.

To explain the more technical aspects of the mission, simple diagrams of the Earth, the moon and the spacecraft are shown, outlining Apollo 11’s four-day trip to the lunar surface. When it comes time to land, “Apollo 11” depicts the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) descends to the Sea of Tranquility with Aldrin and Armstrong inside while Collins waits in orbit.

The film doesn’t shy away from the tension of the event, instead utilizing it to its full potential. When the LEM gets close to the surface, Aldrin and Armstrong, upon discovering that they are entering a rock field, perform a “translation maneuver” to find a suitable landing site, something not commonly known about the mission.

The quality of the footage from then on understandably downgrades, as the astronauts did not have 70 mm cameras with them, but high-quality photographs and multiple camera angles are more than enough to make up for it. 

The time actually spent on the moon is surprisingly short, at least compared to all the buildup, but considering the extravehicular activity, or spacewalking, for Apollo 11 lasted only two and a half hours compared to the several days of the rest of the mission. This is perfectly understandable. For more footage of astronauts on the lunar surface, viewers can also watch “For All Mankind,” a similar documentary compiling footage from all Apollo missions.

The film returns to 70 mm footage for the astronauts’ return to Earth, set to the folk song “Mother Country” as they are brought aboard the USS Hornet and placed inside a mobile quarantine facility. Over the credits, we see the astronauts meeting then-President Richard Nixon, being released from quarantine, participating in congratulatory parades and so on.

“Apollo 11” concludes on the film’s title, superimposed against all the names that made the historic mission possible.

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