The Eagle has landed.
A black screen with the title Apollo 11 arrives for an instant before we’re whisked away to July 1969 as those in Mission Control and astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins prepare themselves for the first manned spaceflight to land on the moon. There’s no opening interstitial providing context, no narrator explaining what’s next. Director Todd Douglas Miller goes full “direct cinema” here—or at least as much as one can despite adding a propulsive score and expert cuts alongside ample split-screens—to immerse us in the moment. And even though we know the journey was a success, watching technicians tighten bolts around a liquid hydrogen leak while Armstrong and company ascend via elevator to enter the vessel’s hull as planned makes you tense up anyway.
Miller’s team had more than eleven thousand hours of audio and hundreds of video recordings at their disposal—including unreleased 70 mm footage unearthed during the collection process. Everything was restored and digitized to cull through and find those moments that held an equal amount of drama, humor, purpose, and awe. Composer Matt Morton came in with a score that ratcheted up the suspense with heartbeat rhythms to match the multiple countdowns for every burn the Eagle and Columbia modules performed to get into position. The credits state his instruments and all other sound effects were meticulously chosen because they each existed in 1969 and therefore wouldn’t risk distracting audiences with anything that might take them out of this visually magnificent and unforgettable feat performed fifty years ago.
We hear Walter Cronkite‘s play-by-play throughout when not listening to the men in headsets checking gauges and ensuring communication with space remained intact. Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins each receive a brief moment of recorded audio to go along with a quick, tastefully done montage that brings us up to speed on their paths to this adventure via still photography and even more archival footage. Sometimes the idle chatter is drowned out by the music and other times amplified so we know to listen closely for what’s sure to be an intriguing tidbit or a comedic moment of relief. But for the most part you can ignore most of the dialogue and simply bask in the unreal video that unfolds in crisp high definition from impossible angles.
There was a camera on Eagle and Columbia so that their breathtaking docking sequence could by immortalized with a sharp jolt. I would believe you if you told me these events were completed with miniatures since it’s all so vivid in comparison to the grainy black and white stock we’re used to seeing. But then we watch as the astronauts reposition their cameras to get the best view and realize NASA was prepared to capture every last second of this eight-day mission. Houston was no exception either as alternate cameras are captured in almost every frame to reveal just how much film was shot of even the tiniest details like Deke Slayton on coms, Jim Lovell intently watching, and excited Americans gazing up from outside Kennedy Space Center.
You can’t simply dismiss the whole as a compilation of greatest hits, though. What Miller does to weave this together with subtle captions that label the players and maneuvers is nothing short of magical. It’s obviously a commemoration, but you cannot deny the power it holds as a narrative regardless of its subject’s ubiquity. Just because we know things more or less went off without a hitch doesn’t make what’s happening any less harrowing. And the sheer joy of seeing what ostensibly was left on the cutting room floor at the time can’t be quantified. We’re witnessing it as though we’ve never experienced any part of it before. Miller reinstates the scale and emotion of one of mankind’s greatest achievements after decades rendered it seemingly all-too familiar.
There’s little else to say because you really do have to see it to believe it—and on the biggest screen possible if your market allows (mine sadly did not as the IMAX passed it over for Marvel). I will note, however, that Apollo 11 proves a wonderful companion to the underrated First Man by supplying the objective ambition and accomplishment to complement Damien Chazelle‘s look into the subjective psychology behind those astronauts’ motivations. It also shows exactly how close-to-life his fictionalized account was with so much of the aesthetic and content matching to perfection. That they both arrive to coincide with the auspicious event’s fiftieth birthday only makes it that much sweeter because even those who watched on TV in 1969 have never seen it like this.
courtesy of NEON and CNN FILMS