Special Effects: A
It’s not often that I say a documentary should be seen in the theatre, and here I have my second one to recommend in as many months: Apollo 11 consists almost entirely of footage and audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission as it happened, but that by definition means there are shots — from both space and the ground on Earth — that are a wonder to behold, and can only be best appreciated on the big screen.
There are only two exceptions to this apparent rule of showing only live footage of the mission itself, and they are brief and used very effectively. The first instance, very early on in the film, features three quick archival photo montages of the lives led previously by the first three astronauts who went to the moon: Neil Armstrong; Buzz Aldrin; and Michael Collins. The whole point of this film is its immediacy — in spite of it all having actually happened fifty years ago this year — and director Todd Douglas Miller wisely breezes past it quickly.
The second instance is of footage taken of a tape recorder flipping around in zero gravity, on the return trip to Earth, playing John Stewart’s “Mother Country.” In just one of countless instances of this film’s impeccable editing, we see the original footage, along with the echoing audio from the recorder, and then the film’s sound cuts to the direct sound of the song’s original recording.
The album the song is from was originally released on New Year’s Day 1969; the aforementioned photos were all taken prior to that — so, literally nothing seen or heard in Apollo 11 comes from any time after the mission itself. There are are no interviews, no narration — only the audio from the original footage itself, or from communication recordings. The opening shot is an indelible one: a man walking along a street, dwarfed by the massive, tank-like wheels behind him, which themselves fill the screen — until a cut to a wider shot reveals the rocket itself being transferred to its launch point. How many people even know such a vehicle even exists? I suppose all this time I never thought to consider how they got it there.
There is no narrative arc to Apollo 11 — in fact, this is the first documentary I have ever seen not to give any writing credit at all — and that turns out to be one of its many strengths. Todd Douglas Miller, who also did the editing, lets all the footage simply speak for itself. It’s a document of a particular moment in time, with unparalleled historic import, condensed down to 93 minutes. There is not a single moment wasted, not a lull to be found. This jaw-dropping feat of humanity is enough on its own to be mesmerizing from beginning to end — with particularly thrilling moments, of course: the successful rocket launch; the literal landing on the moon; the safe return to Earth eight days later.
I found myself thinking a lot about the incredible mathematical precision that would have to have gone into all of this. But if you want an “inspiring,” fictionalized version of that angle, just go and watch Hidden Figures. Or if you want rumination on the personal costs of participating in this endeavor — with, granted, Oscar-winning special effects — see First Man. Apollo 11 is not concerned with dictates of emotional responses. Those are left for you to discover on your own, just as they were for the live witnesses to the occasion — of which there are just a few brief shots: crowds camped out to watch the rocket launch, or palpable relief among NASA personnel with each step successfully completed.
Speaking pf special effects, Apollo 11 credits one visual effects artist (Ben Kiviat) and one person with “additional visual effects” (Kevin Allen Caby). There are no discernible effects shots in this film, although I did wonder if there was some restoration work done on some of the never-before-seen footage, much of which is amazingly crisp. There are, however, a few brief interludes of graphics depicting the direction and motion of the spacecraft. They are always simple, straightforward, look precisely like you would expect them to if made by someone in 1969, and are seamlessly integrated into the sequence of events.
Apollo 11 is that rare film where you already know how it ends, and everything that unfolds onscreen is gripping nonetheless. The significance of this event — even by today’s standards but especially those of fifty years ago — truly cannot be overstated, and there may never have been any other film that better illustrates that fact. You leave the theatre marveling at the potential of human ingenuity,