The new Apollo 11 documentary boasts that it is a “cinematic event fifty years in the making.” Which it is. It’s less a documentary and more a compilation of restored 16mm film and rarely-if-ever heard audio records from the first lunar landing mission, and it’s absolutely incredible. (Heads up: this blog contains spoilers, but then again, most of us know what happened on Apollo 11, right? Right.)
The trailer, just in case you haven’t seen it kicking around yet.
The most impressive thing about this documentary is that it’s almost entirely original material — there’s no narrator and no interviews providing context but there’s still a very clear narrative. The only additional explanatory pieces are simple, stick spacecraft-type animations mimicking the displays in mission control that illustrate the event that’s about to happen. For example, while the crew and flight controllers are talking about TLI (an unfamiliar acronym for most people) the doc shows a simple animation of the third stage’s flashing red engine “burning” to give the spacecraft enough velocity to leave Earth orbit. The major mission events are all done in this style. It’s so simple but super effective.
The movie gets away without narration because there’s so much footage from mission control to fill that gap. While you listen to the air-to-ground audio, you also see Bruce McCandless and Charlie Duke (both of whom served as CapComs on the mission) speaking to the crew. This was probably my favourite element of the doc. Nerd that I am, I have all the 16mm in-flight footage from every Apollo mission, but the mission control stuff isn’t as readily available (or available at all) so it was stuff I’d never seen. It turned out to be the perfect way to bring humanity into the mission.
Those familiar with my YouTube channel know I love the human side, so much that I threw this little video together a while ago about what downtime going to the Moon looks like, using that aforementioned 16mm film.
One of my favourite moments that I didn’t know happened until I saw that mission control footage: during lunar ascent, Jim Lovell was sitting in mission control watching the data screens and he was the first to jump up and point to the change that said to see that Apollo 11 had left the Moon. The flight controllers were a fraction of a second behind him in reacting, but there’s something so sweet about another commander waiting for his flight getting excited about numbers on a screen!
The one thing I didn’t love was the mix. Some of the air-to-ground and in-spacecraft audio gets pretty scratchy in places, with the music was mixed so loud you couldn’t hear the conversation. I’ve read the transcript so I knew what they were saying, but there were some bad pilot jokes in there that got a little lost in the swelling soundtrack! Subtitles or text overlay would have drawn me into the human side of the flight a little more.
One way the movie did text on screen perfectly was during the landing. In an unobtrusive corner was a countdown timer showing how much fuel was left in the descent module next to a real-time altitude display. You could watch the number count down and feel the tension. When the 1202 and 1201 alarms blared, a little flashing red number popped up, showing you just how close they were to the Moon when that happened (but it was hard to hear the exchange over the music!). As the fuel store got lower, the text changed to yellow then red. It was such a simple but effective way to build drama since the only visual was the out-the-window shot of the surface.
This shot of the interstage falling away is one of the more famous shots from the Apollo era, and it’s in this Apollo 11 doc as well. I put this video together ages ago to answer the question of how it is we even have footage from inside the rocket!
If we’re getting nitpicky, I could have done with titles in mission control, too. There are some shots right around the landing where you can see Pete Conrad, Al Bean, Jim Lovell, Jim Irwin, Fred Haise, Deke Slayton, and Tom Stafford in the background behind the flight controllers. Granted, they weren’t moonwalkers at the time, but I kept willing everyone else in the theatre to know how neat it was to have all those guys just hanging out in mission control! But that’s the most minor or gripes.
Odds are it’s the stunning visuals that will draw people to see this one in theatres, and rightly so. I made it to an IMAX screening and I couldn’t believe how clear the restored footage was! The launch looked like it was newly recorded and pristine like a Hollywood movie. It was so easy to get lost in the sheer beauty of the archived footage.
If you can make it you an IMAX screening before it’s finishing its theatrical run, see it. If not, see it in a normal theatre. This movie is unquestioningly worth watching on the biggest screen you can find.
This blog isn’t sponsored in any way, I just think this movie is so worth seeing in IMAX that I’m going to give you the link to see if it’s playing in your area! https://www.IMAX.com/Apollo11