‘Apollo 11’ vividly recreates man’s first voyage to another planet

March 29, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 29, 2019

Apollo 11, the new film directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, is a gripping documentary chronicling astronauts’ first landing on the moon.

The picture proceeds in strict chronological order, beginning as the massive Saturn V rocket is slowly moved to its launch pad and ending once the three-man crew has been sealed into a mobile quarantine unit after being recovered from the Pacific Ocean by the U.S.S. Hornet.

Most any reader of this blog knows the outcome of the mission, but things remain lively thanks to several elements, foremost among them the inherent drama of the events being depicted.

Director-editor Todd Douglas Miller, probably best known for Dinosaur 13, his 2015 documentary about the controversial excavation of a Tyrannosaurus rex, skillfully deploys photographs and footage taken of and by the astronauts, the NASA crews supporting them and the crowds that marveled at their liftoff. (A few shots show Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins being greeted by enthusiastic crowds after their return.)

The images and sounds recorded in July 1969 — with a handful of exceptions, apparently — are supplemented by brief animated sequences illustrating some of the flight’s maneuvers. Captions identifying some of the people appearing on-screen and various counters indicating velocity, altitude, remaining fuel and time left until the next scheduled critical task also pop up at times.

The original video and audio is expertly supplemented by a score from Mike Morton, who according to a disclaimer in the credits worked exclusively with instruments available at the time of the mission.

Some of the footage is black and white and/or grainy, notably the television feed from the camera that Armstrong and Aldrin stationed by their lunar landing module. But 90 percent of the imagery is clear, even shots taken in low-light conditions in the mission control center in Houston. The only video clips already were familiar to me involved a few parts of the launch and the moon landing.

The audio isn’t quite as marvelous as the video; transmissions from Apollo 11 are often indistinct and hard to make out. But the astronauts’ excitement at key moments, and the relief and exhilaration of the mission control team, comes through. There are a few humorous notes, such as when Collins, the command module pilot, promised ground crew concerned over his inconsistent biomedical readings that he’d tell them if he stopped breathing. Miller ties things together with some commentary from newsman Walter Cronkite and anonymous media liaisons explaining events to the public.

It’s both amazing and sobering that a mission that took place a half-century ago represents the inarguable pinnacle of crewed space exploration, and perhaps even our species’ most impressive technological feat. President Richard Nixon places an interplanetary phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin after their lunar landing, speaking aspirational but — we now know — ultimately hollow words about unifying humanity.

The current presidential administration has expressed some interest in returning to the moon, which should certainly be doable given advances that have been made in computing, science and engineering over the past 50 years. Whether or not humanity renews its commitment to crewed space exploration, one hopes that we as a species will be able to display more maturity than we’ve shown in the recent past.

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