The US space program and more specifically the first moon landing (Apollo 11) has gotten a lot of play in various films and documentaries because it’s a Really Big Deal. As much as I love basically everything adjacent to the space program (hello, Hidden Figures) I gave First Man a miss because I didn’t really feel like it was going to tell me anything new or interesting about the event.
Apollo 11 is a little different. It’s not a feature film that promises to have its female cast mostly staring anxiously at the radio. It’s a documentary, rather than a fictionalization of a well-explored historical event. There have also been quite a few space program documentaries… so what makes this one worth seeing?
I’m not going to claim that I’ve seen the breadth of all Apollo 11-related documentaries, but this one certainly feels different. It comprises almost entirely original (and beautifully-restored) footage and audio. The only additions are little things like name labels to let us know who people are, or countdown clocks, or velocimeters to give context to just what acceleration or braking mean at particular points. There are a few times we get simple line-drawing illustrations of what a maneuver the capsule is about to do looks like, since there’s no exterior footage. There’s some music, which occasionally drowns out the audio for dramatic effect in a way that works rather than being annoying. Apollo 11 viewed on the big screen is probably the closest any of us who weren’t born before the launch can get to actually experiencing it.
It’s history, relying only on its inherent drama rather than anything added. It’s a massive compliment to the director and editor that even though we already know how the mission goes before we ever set foot in the theater, it still feels tense and dramatic and like the massive undertaking that it was. The documentary isn’t just interested in what’s going on in the capsule either; we see people buying Krispy Kreme donuts and Cokes as they wait for the launch. We get low-res camera footage of technicians checking a leaking valve before launch. We spend a lot of time in the tense focus of mission control. And we see a different angle on Neil Armstrong as he goes down the lander’s ladder than most of us are used to seeing. Be prepared for some serious Space Feelings. It’s beyond worth seeing. If you’re like me, it’s borderline spiritual.
The end of the documentary is a quote taken from John F. Kennedy’s Rice Stadium speech about going to the moon. And again, it’s not everyone’s favorite soundbite from the speech. Instead, it’s:
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
It’s a deliberate film, and it’s a deliberate quote to end on. Apollo 11 is about the United States undertaking a task that, when described, sounds absolutely ridiculous and impossible. It’s a task we know that we achieved, on one hand for uglier reasons of Cold War fear and national pride and on the other, for the lofty stated goal of peace for all mankind. Apollo 11 comes at a time when we are faced with far larger, more frightening, more immediate, and more existential challenges, and it reminds us that we are great, and creative, and we can do damn near anything we put out minds to. From 50 years in the past, it offers us a vision of what we can do.
Then we must be bold.