Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Neon releases the film on Friday, March 1.
At a time when the average person compulsively records, shares, and archives images and video of the mundane trivialities they experience in their day-to-day lives, it can be hard — emotionally, if not intellectually — to accept that most of our species’ defining moments have been lost like tears in the rain. The world has access to more footage of an adorable panda being startled by a sneeze than it does of the entire Roman Empire, and that’s just the way things are.
History books and homework will always be there to remind us of what happened once upon a time, but the past is only getting harder to believe without documentary evidence, and even the present is starting to come under question; it used to be “pics or it didn’t happen,” and now it’s “maybe those kids in the MAGA hats were just trying to peacefully express their cultural beliefs.” When people can no longer believe their eyes, it seems foolish to assume that they’ll continue to believe something they’ve only read about or seen recreated. It seems even more unlikely that they’ll be able to understand what that history cost, or be inspired to build upon it.
This puts something like the moon-landing, an earth-shaking event that came after the advent of the moving image, but prior to its complete ubiquity, in a strange middle ground (Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old” located World War I in that same void). We all believe that it happened (well, most of us do anyway), and images of its success are among the most iconic ever taken. There are countless documentaries about it, and a woefully under-appreciated Hollywood biopic that excavates astronaut Neil Armstrong’s inner life with clinical precision. When this critic was a kid, he met a drunk Buzz Aldrin at a Utah bar and grill. This history is right behind us, still close enough to reach back and touch, and yet — without having seen it for ourselves with the clarity and immediacy that’s baked into even the most frivolous Instagram Story — it feels just a bit unreal. Not fictitious, but rather too dryly factual; we know what happened in the summer of 1969, but a growing number of generations can’t access the true awe of the launch, or appreciate how that one giant leap for all mankind made the dreams of an entire planet seem possible.
There are passages — utterly astonishing passages — of Todd Douglas Miller’s “Apollo 11” that might change that forever; change that for the people who were alive to watch history being made on their fuzzy television sets, and for their millennial children who were born two or three decades later, and for anyone who comes after us. Entirely comprised of pristine, unprocessed, never-before-seen 65mm footage that was recently discovered in the depths of the National Archives (alongside 11,000 hours of uncatalogued NASA audio recordings), the film is as much a documentary as it is a bonafide public service. Upon realizing that they’d hit the motherlode, Miller and his team set about digitizing the raw material in a way that would make it seem as clear and present as the world in front of your face. Mission accomplished: The resulting transfer, created in a custom scanner capable of resolutions up to 8K, is (in the filmmaker’s words) “the highest quality digital collection of Apollo 11 footage in existence.”
Honestly, Miller is selling it short. It’s one thing to boast about the specs of these images, and quite another to see the spruced up footage for yourself. It’s rare that picture quality can inspire a physical reaction, but the opening moments of “Apollo 11,” in which a NASA camera crew roams around the base of the rocket and spies on some of the people who’ve come to gawk at it from a beach across the water, are vivid enough to melt away the screen that stands between them. The clarity takes your breath away, and it does so in the blink of an eye; your body will react to it before your brain has time to process why, after a lifetime of casual interest, you’re suddenly overcome by the sheer enormity of what it meant to leave the Earth and land somewhere else. By tricking you at a base sensory level into seeing the past as though it were the present, Miller cuts away the 50 years that have come between the two, like a heart surgeon who cuts away a dangerous clot so that the blood can flow again. Such perfect verisimilitude is impossible to fake. It took Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” a long time to make audiences forget they knew how this story ends; “Apollo 11” accomplishes that same feat in milliseconds.
This elegant footage was shot by a professional crew who understood the grandeur of what they were capturing, but it almost doesn’t matter where their cameras were pointing. Anodyne wide shots of distant onlookers and uneventful frames of the rocket poking its head into the Kodachrome sky are every bit as magical as the footage of the launch itself, or the scores of suit-and-tie NASA scientists making things go from inside Mission Control (this is where the new audio comes in handy, as Miller is able to sync the chatter to the action for the first time, and humanize this moment of history by sharing the nerves and camaraderie that went into it behind the scenes).
Miller doesn’t belabor the political impetus of beating the Russians to the Moon, but it wouldn’t matter if he did; these images so lucidly relate the ambition of Apollo 11 and the collaboration it required that everything else seems petty in comparison. For a brief moment, as the countdown plummets towards zero and those massive volcanic engines begin to erupt, you truly believe that people can achieve extraordinary things when they put their minds together. That’s almost as much of an accomplishment in 2019 as going to the Moon was in 1969.
And then, after 25 minutes or so, Armstrong and his crew lift into orbit and “Apollo 11” loses much of its luster. Their journey across the stars is sensationally exciting, and the moon landing itself is full of tension (as no one who saw “First Man” needs to be reminded), but it’s hard to shoot riveting footage in outer space. The remote-controlled NASA cameras mounted to the various modules lack the warmth and discretion of the cameraman who filmed the launch, and Miller is forced to cut between a mess of awkward angles that are only interesting because they show us what no human eye was able to see. The abstractions that creates — and the rudimentary diagrams that Miller uses to fill the gaps between the good stuff of the astronauts palling around — are counterintuitive for a documentary that derives its power and value from its clarity.
Miller finds a way to make the landing sequence feel unique, and video of the first moon landing will always be mind-blowing no matter the mitigating circumstances (it’s still hard to wrap your head around the President calling someone on the Moon, even if it’s President Nixon). But these images, which were never clear and never will be, are only a fraction as powerful as the earthbound ones that Miller has managed to rescue from oblivion. They’re a testament to our creative imagination more than anything else, as they reinforce just how accurately Chazelle and other filmmakers have been able to recreate the reality of what happened (it’s wild how much Matt Morton’s period-appropriate score echoes the one that Justin Hurwitz wrote for “First Man,” the residual energy of the Apollo 11 mission inspiring similar music from two artists who weren’t alive when that history was made).
Of course, there’s nothing like the real thing, and “Apollo 11” is able to show it to us as if for the first time. It’s only a little while before this starts to feel like just another documentary, but even a short-lived miracle goes a long way. It’s still enough to make you believe in the impossible. If we can see the past this clearly, perhaps that’s reason enough to hope for a better perspective of the future.
“Apollo 11” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Neon will release it March 1.