If you’ll recall, during the Oscar Blitz, I registered my deep disdain for the Documentary Short, A Night at the Garden, because it was nothing more than a highlight reel of archival footage about a Nazi rally in New York, without any commentary, interviews, or narrative of any kind. I found it lazy and tossed off, almost like it was daring the Academy to not fall into their default of nominating films relating to the Holocaust.
What I should have clarified in my diatribe was that it’s not a requirement to have interviews, or narration, or any number of the common tools used in documentary filmmaking to make a good movie. Archive footage alone can make for a compelling film, if presented with a cogent narrative and contextual themes that can resonate with the audience. The best example I’ve seen in my life was the ESPN documentary, June 17th, 1994, which used only sports broadcast and newscast footage of the day, which began with celebrations of the New York Rangers winning the Stanley Cup and the beginning of the USA-hosted FIFA World Cup, and ended with the low-speed chase and arrest of O.J. Simpson. It was a monumental singular day in the sports world, and the disparate coverage in the nascent 24-hour news cycle was beyond compelling.
It’s careful editing and a stylistic approach that makes archival documentaries work, and I’m happy to say that the latest entry, Apollo 11, directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, is an absolute triumph of the form. It won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and is now in wide release. It is the first truly great theatrical documentary of the year, and the first film that I’d honestly recommend shelling out the extra money to see it in a larger format like IMAX.
This year, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of man’s first landing on the Moon, and Miller’s documentary is a master class in presenting the archival format. Using 16mm footage and previously unreleased 70mm film, Miller, with the help of British archivist Stephen Slater, is able to sync up a lot of audio recordings from Apollo 11 Mission Control with the actual footage from the mission itself, including launch, progress, touchdown, return, and splashdown. On top of that, a lot of the film has been restored into an almost 4K HD resolution, so that the bulk of the footage looks like an actual Hollywood movie. Yes, there’s a bunch of grainy stuff as well, but for the most part, you could honestly fool the uneducated that this is a fully produced blockbuster.
It’s that type of film quality, along with simple explanatory animations and a very well-used countdown clock, that makes Apollo 11 not just an absolute feast for the eyes, but also an essential educational chronology. This is the type of film that could play in school science classes for the next 50 years, inflaming the imaginations of generations of new scientific minds.
As to the sheer scale of the film, it’s breathtaking. I originally saw it in a normal theatre, and even then my eyes were watering from the majesty of what I was seeing. Just the feel of riding an elevator up the more than 300 feet to the cockpit of the Saturn V rocket through mounted cameras was a wonderfully visceral experience. You truly do feel like you’re there in the moment, be it with the excited crowds watching the launch, the straight-laced men working around the clock at Mission Control, or the astronauts themselves. It’s marvelous on its own, but in IMAX? Hold on to your butts.
And then, of course, there’s the landing itself. Even though Buzz Aldrin’s camera could only record one frame of footage per second, you still get the feeling that you’re right there, walking on the Moon with two of the only 12 men who’ve ever done it. Every child I saw in the audience was awed, and every adult who ever dreamed of being an astronaut was a wide-eyed kid again in their own right.
It’s hard to imagine that man’s greatest adventure occurred half a century ago. If you’ll forgive the pun, seeing it on film appears otherworldly. Much of that is because outside factors have hindered our sense of exploration in the five decades since, but to the film’s credit, it never postures on such matters, never delves into the politics of the matter. After the mission, there’s juxtaposed footage of John F. Kennedy’s call to action eight years earlier with footage of Richard Nixon (and audio) of him congratulating the crew. Politically, those two men were about as different as can be. But it doesn’t matter here. Same with the Cold War in general. Yes, it’s important to understand the geopolitical motivations for the Space Race, which culminated with Apollo 11’s success, but that’s not the point with this particular feature. All that heavier stuff can wait for further study once the kids decide that they want to go deeper.
This film is only meant to be a celebration of the pinnacle of human achievement, and in that sense, it succeeds absolutely, giving a new generation of stargazers something to learn and hopefully aspire to. The fact that it’s damn near perfect from a technical standpoint is icing on the cake for people like me who have focused their gazing over the years from the stars to the screens.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you ever want to be an astronaut? Are you one of the 8% of people on Rotten Tomatoes that somehow didn’t like this film because you think the Moon Landing was a hoax, and thus needs to be removed from society? Let me know!