We know far too little about this story that supposedly everyone knows.
I doubt that any other film released in 2019 will be as breathtaking as Apollo 11, a glorious IMAX documentary that simply flings you into the excitement of what Walter Cronkite is heard calling “man’s greatest adventure.”
There is no narration in the film, hence no sense that we’re being told a story that is over. Director Todd Douglas Miller simply assembles and restores awe-inspiring 70mm archival footage, much of it little-seen until now, and syncs it up with available sound, mostly technical talk, from the eight-day mission in July 1969.
Starting a few hours before launch, we are there: at Cape Kennedy, among the technicians, alongside the 1 million onlookers lining nearby beaches, in the hallway where the astronauts emerge from an elevator. On the mammoth IMAX screen every detail is fascinating — the short-sleeved white shirts and the skinny ties on the engineers, the bulky space suits on the explorers about to depart Earth, the daunting height of the rocket.
The level of danger Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong faced is dizzying even 50 years later. Oh, three hours before launch, there turns out to be a leak in the rocket? No worries, it’s merely liquid hydrogen. Men were still tightening bolts as the three astronauts were boarding the ship. What is going through your mind if you’re one of this trio? “Uh, fellas, I can’t make it this time, I have a headache . . . I think I left the oven on . . . I don’t want to miss All My Children . . . for the love of God, am I really strapping myself into a 360-foot stick of dynamite?”
It’s gobsmacking how Miller manages to flay the nerves when recounting a historical event, but when dumped into the middle of it all, you’re keenly aware that from this vantage point no one knows how this mission will turn out. Looked at up close, the degree of difficulty of every aspect of the voyage is phenomenal. Using animated diagrams and readouts plus film shot aboard the rocket, together with glimpses of controllers in Houston, the director breaks the mission down into discrete segments, any one of which seems like arrogance even to attempt.
To reverse a famous phrase, failure — spectacular, ghastly, hideous failure — was an option at any number of stress points. We know far too little about this story that supposedly everyone knows; for instance, after slipping into orbit around Earth, the astronauts had to execute a maneuver called transposition, docking, and extraction. This involved separating the command module Columbia so it could float off on its own, then do a somersault and dock with the Eagle module, the part that would land on the moon. When it did, Collins stayed in orbit for an entire day of waiting as the other two men explored the lunar surface, nobody knowing whether they would be able to successfully relaunch from the moon and hook up with Columbia for the journey home.
Together with the best film of last year, Damien Chazelle’s singular First Man, which filters the story through Armstrong’s personal life, Apollo 11 renews and restores in the collective memory the scale of this colossal achievement, a story of America and man at their most audacious. Even the audience with which I saw the film, in the Bolshevik precincts of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, burst into proud applause at the end. How can anyone fail to be amazed and awestruck?
Such was the astronauts’ sacrifice that it continued after returning to Earth. Following splashdown in the Pacific, the trio had to be carefully quarantined, kept in a bubble at all times lest they be carrying any space-germs that might kill us all. Having done something no one had ever done, and eager to return to civilization, they instead bided their time in another lonely capsule on Earth, effectively caged for three weeks. This, like everything else, they took in stride.
These were men of another era, one in which actions were eloquent but words carefully measured, especially words of boasting. The film takes us aboard the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier whose helicopters picked up the men from the last remaining piece of their spaceship in the ocean. The film takes in a poster on the ship that displays the Apollo 11 eagle logo below the legend, “Task Accomplished.” “Task”!