Apollo 11 (2019)
Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
Produced by Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Petersen, Evan Krauss
Edited by Todd Douglas Miller
Music by Matt Morton
Production company - CNN Films, Statement Pictures
Distributed by Neon, Universal Pictures
(1:33) Universal Studios Blu-ray
(Disclaimer: My thoughts here are less a review of the film and more a personal reflection.)
The genius of Apollo 11 lies in its simplicity. Here is a documentary containing no experts, no talking heads, no voiceover narration describing the culture of the times, and no running commentary from anyone except Walter Cronkite, whose brief audio appearances are what you would’ve heard anyway in July 1969. If you haven’t seen the film, see it on the largest screen you can. I’ll be showing the film at the Severna Park Library in Severna Park, Maryland on Wednesday, October 9 at 6:30pm, and while it’s not the largest screen you’ll find, it’s probably larger than what you have at home. Plus, like all of our library movies, it’s free. Bottom line: see it wherever you can.
Whether you were alive for the actual event on July 20, 1969 or not, Apollo 11’s story of how Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins went to the moon and back is an experience that accomplishes what few films can, creating a true sense of awe. I mentioned that the film’s strength lies in its simplicity, but there was nothing simple about constructing it. Thanks to previously-unseen archival footage and audio recordings, the world now has the opportunity to view a staggering work that goes beyond what you might expect from a typical documentary. The film works brilliantly on multiple levels, asking audiences to dwell on its grandeur and vastness, while leaving implications you can dwell on for the rest of your life. Apollo 11 is not just a great and important story, it’s a testament of what humans can achieve and a picture of something we’ve lost.
Although I was only seven years old at the time and watched much of the television coverage, most of my memories from the Apollo 11 mission are filled with images of Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon, the American flag, and the “one small step” speech, moments that have been replayed over and over in my mind and on various forms of media for 50 years. Although those memories are still inspiring, what struck me most in watching the 2019 film are the scenes that take place before lift-off.
It’s impossible to watch the Mobile Launch Platform being carried by a crawler-transporter without being overwhelmed. The crawler-transporter looks like a science-fiction version of a massive tank used by giants from another planet. You wonder how humans could’ve constructed the thing today, to say nothing of 1969. Yet the technology of this vehicle pales in comparison to the Saturn V rocket itself as the camera slowly rides the elevator, taking the audience past each section of the 363-foot tall rocket (nearly as tall as a 36-story building) which seems endless. Regardless of your age, a sense of childlike wonder overtakes you as you’re lifted higher and higher. Even if you’re seated in a comfortable theater seat or on your couch, it’s a dizzying experience.
In your mind, you’re trying to process all this, the vastness, importance, and danger of the mission, all bouncing around in your brain. We’re still in the opening moments of the film, yet the enormity of the materials and structures being used is counterbalanced by the greater enormity of the mission: taking three human beings 238,900 miles to the moon. (That’s the equivalent of driving from New York to San Francisco and back 41 times, and that’s just getting to the moon.) I remember as a kid, looking at the moon and thinking, “I can see it; it can’t be that far away.” But how can this massive 263-ton rocket get all the way up there? To a kid like me who’d probably never travelled more than 50 miles from home, 238,000 felt like an incomprehensible number.
The event brings to mind the feelings we experience when childlike wonder meets physical reality, something that perhaps seldom happened to kids at the time. Kids can (and do) imagine all sorts of things: fighting underwater sea creatures, sailing on pirate ships, defending (or capturing) a castle, and many other exploits. Yet here was a dream that was actually coming true, something we could watch on television that wasn’t make believe. It was actually happening before our eyes. I’m not sure young minds can adequately process this. (I’m not sure older minds can either.)
In the midst of all our excitement over this event, it was also more than a little scary. I did a lot of dumb stuff as a kid (and truth be told, still do), but I’ve always been at least something of a thinker. As the Apollo 11 mission was about to launch, I thought, “Maybe this is one of those dreams that isn’t supposed to happen. Maybe this is something humans really shouldn’t be messing around with.” No one had ever gone to the moon before and maybe there was a good reason why. I think my concern was less with the three astronauts in the rocket and more with the bigger picture. I hadn’t yet encountered the “Just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do it” argument that would come up again and again as I got older (which probably manifested itself next in questioning the concept of cloning). But we were doing it and I wanted it to be a success.
So did a lot of other people. According to an Associated Press article, the Apollo 11 mission required the efforts of 400,000 people. Early in the film, we get a long panning shot inside NASA’s Mission Control Center consisting of row after row of massive computers monitored by an endless string of men in white shirts and black ties. As the camera moves, we see similar unbroken images so often we might think the film is on an endless loop, but it isn’t. Maybe the modern equivalent of all those bulky computers wouldn’t fit on a table in 2019, but they’d take up much less floor space and require far fewer men to monitor them. (We see very few women or people of color in the film, but the story of JoAnn Morgan, the first female launch controller, is told in the AP article. Thankfully, things are changing, although not as quickly as we would like.)
As the film progresses, we realize that every aspect of the mission is being carefully monitored. Regardless of where we are, someone is always there to report on problems, fix them, and communicate them. It boggles the mind to think of all the checks and balances required to make this mission work (especially with technology available in 1969) and I wonder if we would have the patience, thoroughness, and toughness to make this happen now, in a day when we can’t even depend on email servers and cell phone consistency for simple communication needs.
Adding to the monumental nature of the film, the rocket lift-off sequence is both startling and enormously weighty. I’ve already mentioned that you should see the film on as large a screen as possible, but also try to experience it with the best sound system possible. My home system is quite modest, but launch scene made me wonder which would happen first: the house falling apart or my neighbors yelling at me. I can only imagine the thoughts going through the minds Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. I’m sure they were not, but I would’ve been utterly terrified.
The scenes of people who got as close as possible to Cape Canaveral are also fascinating. We see cameras everywhere, even hand-held movie cameras, which were not nearly as prevalent in 1969 as camcorders would be in the ‘80s and ‘90s, or digital cameras and phones today. The balconies and roofs of area motels are so crowded I wouldn’t have been surprised to see supports shaking. It’s difficult to know exactly how many of these people were locals and how many travelled from distant states (and even countries), but there they are. For people thinking there probably wasn’t anything else going on in the world, remember that the Vietnam War was still being fought, the Soviet Union launched the unmanned lunar spacecraft Luna 15, and Mary Jo Kopechne died in Ted Kennedy’s car. The Summer of Love was gone, and so was Star Trek, but we still had Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, and for a little while longer, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. Apollo 11 was monumental enough to make us forget about everything else, at least for awhile.
Perhaps that’s one of the things that’s missing today, at least as far as a single event that everyone - regardless of race, religion or politics - can get behind. How many times can we say that we’ve witnessed a world event? Even fewer, an otherworldly event?
Yet it becomes painfully obvious watching Apollo 11 that we’ve lost something else. I don’t know if there’s a single event today capable of pulling us all together, at least in the same general direction. It’s so easy to resign ourselves to being too divided, too isolated (and not only due to technology), too busy. We all have goals, desires, needs, wants, and yes, even agendas, and none of them seem to overlap, not only on a global scale, but even a local scale, maybe even a neighborhood scale. Apollo 11 makes me feel that we’ve lost that ability and I think that feeling comes from something deeper than nostalgia for a long-ago time. Despite all the problems we faced in 1969, at least a fairly sizable group of humans corralled their hopes, dreams, and prayers, binding them together into something that united us, at least for a little while. Apollo 11 shows us that even if we can’t quite work together right now, at least we did once. Maybe we can do it again.
Photos: Wikipedia, The Film Stage, High-Def Digest, Blu-ray.com