One Giant Leap, by Bob Connally

4 Mar

The televised image of Neil Armstrong taking his first steps upon the surface of the moon has been burned into the collective consciousness of the human race since that moment on July 20, 1969. Despite not being born until more than a decade later, I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t recognize that image and Armstrong’s accompanying words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Sending people to the moon and returning them safely to earth is almost unquestionably humanity’s greatest achievement and while we may have thought it was well documented, it turns out we had no idea just how well documented it was.

As explained in great detail by Vanity Fair’s David Kamp, Apollo 11’s director Todd Douglas Miller was granted access to more than 60 reels of 65mm Panavision film that had spent nearly a half century sitting silently in the National Archives. “A couple of years before the Apollo 11 mission,” Kamp states, “NASA had put together a deal with MGM… to make a picture that would tell the story of the entire Apollo program. But on short notice, MGM backed out.” This happened a mere six weeks prior to the launch of Apollo 11 but NASA hoped to, “salvage some aspect of the project,” and hired Theo Kamecke to direct a crew to shoot not only the launch but the goings on surrounding the launch on July 16, 1969. Some of this footage would be used in Kamecke’s 1972 documentary Moonwalk One, some of which is used here but in a different way. There was however, not surprisingly, a treasure trove that had never seen the light of day. Although there is certainly much more, Miller brings us some truly jaw-dropping images that should be seen on the largest screen you can find.

From the start the sense of scope is fittingly enormous. Miller uses a series of shots from the hours leading up to the launch, not only of the spacecraft being set into place or of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins getting suited up. We see gigantic images of hundreds of workers at Cape Kennedy’s Launch Control Center in Florida and of crowds milling around. It’s really the mundane moments that are the most interesting here and really throughout Apollo 11 as a whole. People simply buying snacks at a makeshift concession stand like they’re at a minor league baseball game becomes a striking image when you know what those people are anticipating and when they’re on this big of a canvas. Miller’s approach to only use audio from NASA’s archives from the mission rather than any voice over narration lets us take everything in more. There have been plenty of documentaries about that period in NASA history which have used talking head interviews with those involved. Here we don’t have any reflection. Historical context is whatever each viewer brings to it. This also makes Apollo 11 intimate as well as gargantuan.

This is an approach that also means you’ll be a bit disappointed if you were hoping to learn much more about the mission or those who were a part of it than you already did. Armstrong’s heart rate being much higher than Aldrin’s or Collins’ during Apollo 11’s more intense moments is about all we get as far as that is concerned and I suspect true NASA history buffs probably knew that already. Miller instead gives us a 90-minute film that follows the experience of going to the moon and back in chronological order. With the exception of a few moments of the most basic animation to show where the spacecraft is at a given point in the mission, Miller sticks entirely to the archival footage at hand, rarely employing any stylistic flourishes. When he does near the film’s end it’s a bit jarring and doesn’t really fit.

Apollo 11 is at its best when we hear the voices of the astronauts as we see out the windows they are looking out of, making the occasional little joke, but primarily describing their tasks with remarkable calm. This recalls last year’s First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic which more than any other movie I’ve ever seen makes the very idea of going into space seem utterly terrifying. Despite this, that same sense of calm in any situation is conveyed in the voices of the men on the mission. This couples beautifully with a scene of a handful of people sitting in a hotel lobby near Cape Kennedy. They watch the news as it reports on a relatively calm day in Vietnam and covers the ongoing story of Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. With no internet, following each moment of Apollo 11 as it unfolds isn’t an option for anyone not working at Houston’s Mission Control. Regardless of how excited people around the world and certainly in the United States may be, they simply have to wait as ordinary life presses on. This one little restrained scene illustrates life in 1969 beautifully.

When Miller finally does get to the landing itself and Armstrong’s first steps he uses a shot from a film camera mounted at the top of the lunar lander. To hear those most famous of words against an image from a different angle is honestly disorienting and a real treat for anyone who loves this moment in history.

Apollo 11 may not be the most illuminating film ever made about space exploration, but it is a powerful cinematic experience. See this in the theater.

One Response to “One Giant Leap, by Bob Connally”

  1. Bro March 4, 2019 at 6:12 pm #

    Probably not going to get to this one on the big screen – closest showing appears to be about 25 miles away. But pretty interesting that this and They Shall Not Grow Old both came out so close together and seem to make similar choices with regard to how they tell the story, using only the voices of the men who were there, the closer to the moment they lived it the better. Though the events themselves were monumental, the films choose to create the smallest story possible out of them, to make it feel within arm’s reach. Nice review, bro.

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