Fifty years ago the National Aeronautics and Space Administration sent three men to the moon, landed two of them on the surface and brought them all back safely to Earth. After nearly 143-hours in space, the Apollo 11 team touched down about 900 miles southwest of Hawaii in the North Pacific Ocean.
Less than one year ago, Damien Chazelle’s phenomenal First Man conveyed what the emotional experience of the Apollo 11 mission leader, Neil Armstrong, might have been like. To understand how impressive Chazelle’s undertaking as an exercise in empathy is, consider how far from one’s usual adventures flying to the moon is. Recognise the challenges in making the experiences of a public figure who is usually alienated by his achievement seem immediate and coherent within our own realm of existence.
What First Man isn’t is an information machine. Details are jettisoned in favour of focus on Armstrong’s own experience. The film received obtuse backlash for not including the image of the American flag standing proudly on the moon’s surface. Apollo 11, the new documentary edited, produced and directed by Todd Douglas Miller does include the flag, among other images you might expect from a blow-by-blow account of the moon landing.
A story of the Apollo 11 launch that labours for precise information highlights the confines of a feature-length documentary. There’s not enough time in Miller’s 93 minutes to tell us everything that we need to know for the film to succeed in its aim of expressing a monumental event. Apollo 11 commits the greatest error of a documentary of its ilk in that it leaves us wanting to know more.
Miller’s production team reportedly discovered previously unreleased 70 mm footage from the launch and recovery of Apollo 11. The footage is undeniably impressive, designed to provide a sense of immediacy, but Apollo 11 nonetheless does not succeed as a means of conveying experience because it lacks those crucial scenes that First Man didn’t. Chazelle’s film carefully spends most of the running with Armstrong as a man, not an astronaut, before the mission even takes place. As a consequence, we understand the enormity of the event from his vantage point.
The footage in Apollo 11 is its strength, viscerally powerful because it is real and not the result of a Hollywood special effects team. Additionally, the quality of much of the footage is astounding. There is a palpable thrill to witness the steady progression of the Apollo 11 launch and the subsequent moon landing in such clarity and with such narrative coherence.
Neil Armstrong and fellow moon lander Buzz Aldrin left a plaque on the surface of the moon. It read, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” Miller’s film provides the distinct impression that it was not made for all mankind but rather as an adulation of American achievement. While NASA and Apollo 11 was undeniably a consequence of American money, politics and engineering, there’s something to said for appreciating the achievement as a global accomplishment rather than a national one. That’s a sentiment that is lost in Miller’s film.
Apollo 11 is principally a means of conveying an experience and in that capacity it is less successful than First Man despite the grandeur and authenticity in its images. It is also a means of providing progressive detail in regard to the narrative of the mission but falls short as a result of the limiting nature of a feature film. But through its failings, Apollo 11 remains a captivating piece of insight into one of the most significant achievements of mankind over the past century. It would take a closed heart not to appreciate the wonder of pressing a first foot down onto the surface of the moon.