Fifty years ago this month, something extraordinary happened, a culmination of the entirety of human intellectual pursuit, international collaboration, technical expertise and engineering skill up to that point in history, gathered and focused into a single endeavour, the NASA mission designated Apollo 11, its purpose to land a crewed capsule on the Moon and return it safely.
Launched on July 16th 1969 from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida atop a Saturn V rocket, the crew of three were Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin who descended to the surface in the lunar landing module, the Eagle, while Michael Collins remained in orbit in the command module Columbia.
With astonishing access to the NASA archives and a vast restoration effort, filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller has produced, edited and directed what may be the definitive documentary on the Apollo 11 mission, culled from thousands of hours of audio recordings and hundreds of hours of film and video including never-before-released 70mm footage of the launch and recovery operations of the USS Hornet in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th 1969.
With no frame or commentary, no post-mortem analysis of the events or their vast historical significance, what Miller presents is a pure document of that astonishing summer as it happened and was experienced at the time by those involved, Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, the thousands of technicians at Mission Control and those outside who watched the launch, the billion people who watched the event around the world.
Opening in the days leading up to the launch, the vast machines which slowly crawl into the distance towards Launch Complex 39 carrying with them the assembled rocket, the enormity of the Saturn V is emphasised first by the grandeur with which it is transported then the first-person view as the camera rises alongside the launch gantry to the access port.
Every wire, plate, circuit, switch, bolt and light designed and comprehended individually and as a whole, every threshold calculated and cross-checked, Mission Control is a sea of screens monitoring telemetry, every station with a telephone and an operator and a backup so no factor is unaccounted for or ignored even for a moment, while outside journalists, reporters, photographers and families watch the countdown.
“The voyage man has always dreamed about,” on a column of fire the rocket rises, leaving a black streak across the sky as it goes higher and higher, faster and faster, jettisoning the booster stages as it leaves the atmosphere to first orbit the Earth then burn again to achieve trans-lunar orbit, a genuinely awesome sight even with the remove and perspective of a half a century.
Despite the events being iconic, known the world over, Miller’s Apollo 11 remains inherently dramatic, a shared experience as the extraordinary is made not common but accessible, the eight days of the actual voyage and the preceding days and following weeks condensed into a linear recreation of just over ninety minutes but with the key moments, launch, descent and recovery, told in real time.
An affirmation that amazing things are possible when experts across diverse fields work together, it is also a very human film, the reminder that when they travelled to that “magnificent desolation” it was with the stated goal that it should be “for all mankind,” the jokes among the crew and the flight officers, an overflowing ashtray a testament to the dedication and stress of all involved.
Only twelve people have ever walked on the Moon; in the current climate of austerity, anti-intellectualism and environmental crisis that number is unlikely to increase any time soon. Tens of thousands have witnessed the launch of a Moon mission in person, though not for the past forty-five years since Gene Cernan and his colleagues returned on Apollo 17. This film may not be equivalent to either, but in the absence of an immediate space programme, Apollo 11 is perhaps the next best thing to share and comprehend that experience.
Apollo 11 is on general release and also screening in IMAX