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Review: Apollo 11 (2019)

Apollo 11 (2019)

Directed by: Todd Douglas Miller

Premise: A documentary about NASA’s first manned mission to the moon.

What Works: For the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller and his crew were given access to the NASA archives including 70mm footage that hadn’t been seen publicly in decades and much of which hadn’t been previously used in any other moon mission documentary. The filmmakers have assembled this footage into a lean, ninety-three minute documentary film. There are a lot of moon landing films but Apollo 11 is distinguished by its style. Many of these other films are quite solemn, beating the audience over the head with the significance of this event and presenting the moon landing with such over the top reverence that these movies tread into pretentiousness. Apollo 11 is made differently. The filmmakers limit themselves to the footage shot as these events were happening, eschewing narration or talking head testimonials. Apollo 11 also benefits from a terrific music score by Matt Morton. The music is tense but not overbearing and fills in the danger and drama. The filmmakers’ approach blows the dust off a familiar topic and allows a contemporary audience to see history as a vibrant and living experience. The previously unseen footage, especially the sequences sourced from 70mm film, is gorgeous. The footage is very clean with incredible detail that captures the subtle humanistic qualities of the flight crew in NASA’s control rooms. The detail allows the film to overcome the challenge inherent to historical filmmaking; it is difficult for an audience half a century removed from these events to imagine that they could have gone any other way but the moon mission was a perilous journey and it comes across that way in Apollo 11. That heightens the drama but also the appreciation for this accomplishment. Attention is paid to the preciseness of the mathematics and engineering; getting something wrong could mean the failure of the mission and the death of the astronauts. That makes this documentary a fitting tribute to the legacy of the Apollo program and what the moon landing represented then and now – a zenith of human ingenuity, courage, and achievement.

What Doesn’t: The moon landing is one of the most widely covered events in human history and it has been the subject of numerous dramas and documentaries. Viewers who are familiar with the Apollo 11 mission aren’t likely to learn much from this newest addition to the canon. It does tell this story well and presents it through previously unseen footage. That distinguishes Apollo 11 from other films but viewers who are already familiar with the moon landing and are looking for something more aren’t likely to find it here. 

DVD extras: Featurette, trailer.

Bottom Line: There have been a lot of documentaries about the moon landing but few are as good as 2019’s Apollo 11. It’s a fitting tribute to the legacy of the astronauts, engineers, and other professionals while also capturing the drama of the event.

Episode: #760 (August 4, 2019)