New from Every Movie Has a Lesson by Don Shanahan: DOCUMENTARY REVIEW: Apollo 11

(Image courtesy of Neon via

(Image courtesy of Neon via


There are about three levels of “how in the hell did they do that?” that come from watching the sterling documentary Apollo 11. From powerful superheroes and high-flying secret agent stunts to the created worlds of the recreated history or imagined futures, that exasperating and jaw-dropping question comes out often when we watch fantastical cinematic tales of fiction. But it’s different with Apollo 11 because of the non-fiction nature. Dozens of brilliant-yet-unassuming scientists, engineers, and specialists poured their lives and livelihoods into this mission and the entire program. In their honor, the documentary team led by director/producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller, have now echoed that monumental achievement with an artistic one of their own.

The first “how” of amazement comes from the mission itself celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. Through a mammoth Space Race era of trial-and-error, correction and improvement, and exhaustive planning and preparation, the Apollo program had made its course to the 11th mission that would land men on the moon. As is well-know, Neil Armstrong was assigned to command Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on this mission. Unlike most benchmarks of history, the mission is the larger story than the men.

LESSON #1: THE LEVEL OF EXECUTION AND ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE SPACE PROGRAM — All of those risks towards President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring vision paid off. The eight-day round trip journey of Apollo 11 to our celestial neighbor and back included the first steps, famous words, and the two hours of EVA activity witnessed by millions around the world. So many things had to go right through implementation, teamwork, and solid decision-making.

The grand moments of Apollo 11 became “where were you” moments for that generation. The stories of those witnesses have become echoed legends of national pride for the last half-century. For most, the same Walter Cronkite-backed news clips are the usual material we’ve all seen and remembered. The generation after that had HBO’s From Earth to the Moon while the newest tribute comes from Damien Chazelle’s dramatization of First Man. No offense to Spielberg, Hanks, and Chazelle, but…

LESSON #2: NOTHING BEATS THE REAL THING — Go big or go home. Seeing the real people and faces enduring their peaks and valleys is more tangible than any dramatic retelling or campfire story. Being able to provide pristine footage of this mission and its highlights is the second “wow.” This documentary’s depth and newness comes from unreleased 70mm large format footage of the rocket’s launch and the mission’s ocean recovery. The revealed insight and details are substantial. These exclusive camera views and angles put you there for every tense challenge.

The final “wow” is Miller’s composition itself. Anyone could have taken that prize footage, hacked it up differently, and over-embellished its strengths with too many theatrics. That is not the case with Apollo 11. Its intricacy and immensity match the mission and the film stock.

Using the direct cinema approach, Apollo 11 features no narration or expository interviews. Minimalistic diagrams and the occasional tiny ticking clock are small layers added to the enormity. Miller and company seamlessly blended the merged 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm footage choices with the original audio recordings from the ground and in the void. To add suspenseful atmosphere, composer Matt Morton injects a looming and foreboding electronic vibe to the background music. Its effect is stupendous. You’ll be sweating like the guys behind the spectacles and cigarettes in Houston.

From these three “wows,” the sharpness of this entire presentation becomes an engrossing experience beyond merely the educational. That’s not to say the school teacher on the other side of this movie critic badge doesn’t recommend this to every middle school and high school science or history teacher in America and the world. That’s a given. Again, it’s the “holy moley” factor. The pulsating pace of Apollo 11 is as sleek and streamlined as the vessels themselves. You now become a new witness. You now have a piece of the legend to tell.




from REVIEW BLOG – Every Movie Has a Lesson

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