“Apollo 11” has touched down, so to speak, at Sundance, and it’s a unique take on the historic Apollo 11 mission: For starters, Todd Douglas Miller’s Documentary Competition feature brings pristine hi-res color and previously unreleased audio to replace the blurry TV transmissions we recall from NASA’s 1969 first flight to the moon.
On its 50th anniversary, “Apollo 11” revels in a historic moment, bringing vivid life to that famed 1969 mission, which completed the national goal set by President John F. Kennedy: Perform a crewed lunar landing and return back to earth.
The film is a wonderful technical achievement, and viewers unaware of this monumental event in American history will get a sense of just how amazing it really was.
The film commences with crisp, pristine footage of the rollout of Apollo 11’s massive Saturn V rocket being transported to the launch pad on a massive crawler transporter at Kennedy Space Center. Scenes of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins being suited up for the mission follow, taking their seats on launch day 320 feet above terra firma, as mechanics tighten bolts around a leaky valve.
The lens is also pointed toward thousands of people surrounding Kennedy Space Center on launch day, flocks of families packed together to take in the spectacle. These images add yet another dimension of Apollo-mania, as well as a sense of excitement and expectation. Even talk show icon Johnny Carson is seen meandering through the crowds as the clock ticks down.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the history of the footage, which is primarily a showcase of unseen Panasonic 70mm footage. Miller discovered this widescreen mother lode of reels at NASA, which is what led to the creation of the documentary. The footage was originally shot by filmmaker Francis Thompson, working with MGM Studios to make a picture about the Apollo program. However, when MGM backed out just weeks before the launch, NASA decided to continue shooting with the same large-format film, presumably for public relations purposes.
Billing itself as “50 years in the making,” this documentary offers scene after scene of new, pristine footage, vignettes from the mission that offers a direct cinematic experience, effectively traveling in real time to the lunar surface alongside mission commander Neil Armstrong, lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin, and command module pilot Michael Collins.
Highlights include thunderous footage of the Apollo 11 launch—an unfathomable 7.6 million pounds of thrust igniting to push 6.5 million pounds of weight up toward the sky; a powered descent to the surface of the moon that runs longer than planned due to Armstrong’s last-minute maneuver to avoid crashing into a football-field-sized crater; and, dialog from the astronauts as they arrive in moon orbit, as giddy as schoolboys as they marvel over the scarred lunar surface.
Meanwhile, you’ll discover the winner of the lowest heart rate during the thunderous launch at Cape Canaveral. (Spoiler alert: it goes to Buzz Aldrin, with a remarkably chilled rate of 88 beats per minute.)
An impressive score provides a sense of immediacy throughout, while no cliché documentary tropes insight to break the spell.
Miller also uses the widescreen format to its maximum potential, showcasing undeniably glorious footage of high res scans taken from the original Todd-AO format – the same wide gauge film used to shoot pictures including “Cleopatra” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
Subtle graphics also do a nice job of breaking down the specifics of the mission, with detailed animations showing the delicate maneuvers required during each phase of the trip, complete with speed and distance information during critical phases of the journey such as landing on the moon. Looking back today at such a remarkable achievement screened in such glorious form, it’s surprising to think how quickly Apollo-mania evaporated from American consciousness. While being one of the most important accomplishments in human history, the public quickly forgot about moon landings by the time Apollo 17 took astronauts to our closest celestial body for the very last time in 1972.
Still, “Apollo 11” is a unique viewing experience that holds a remarkable amount of immediacy, taking us back to a pivotal moment in American history when mankind left planet earth to set foot on the moon.