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Movie Review: Documentary 'Apollo 11' Brings the Moon Mission to Life With Lost NASA Footage


Published March 13, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2019 at 12:44 p.m.

Whenever I see footage of a rocket launch with a close-up of that sudden, thunderous inferno blasting from its base, I'm filled with wonder. I wonder what somebody could have said to talk a cameraman into getting that shot. Did they draw straws? Was it always the new guy? And this was pre-sunscreen, remember.

The takeoff sequence in Todd Douglas Miller's amazingly immersive Apollo 11 easily ranks as movie history's most wondrous. It's preceded, believe it or not, by an equally mind-boggling sight: never-before-viewed video of that Saturn V spacecraft rumbling toward the pad atop a crawler-transport, a quarter-acre platform on tank treads that dwarfs the NASA workers escorting it. It's the closest thing to a giant, monster or god treading the Earth you'll ever see. The things we once imagined and made.

Our first sight of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins suiting up while clearly thinking pretty deep thoughts backstage at the Kennedy Space Center is indisputably cool, too. To be honest, though, nothing holds a candle to that instant of ignition. If you've never had a front-row seat to the spectacle of five F-1 engines burning 5,700 pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen per second to push 6,000 tons of steel, wire and human cargo slowly heavenward, you need to see this.

And you've never had such a seat. Nobody has. That's because just about all the footage of awesome stuff that took place in the course of the first mission to the moon comes from a trove of miraculously preserved 70mm Panavision film unearthed by accident in the U.S. National Archives. Someone at NASA failed to file it properly way back when, and its existence wasn't discovered until 2017. Talk about found footage.

How 100-plus reels of Todd-AO celluloid (the format used in wide-screen Hollywood spectacles like Cleopatra and The Sound of Music) and more than 11,000 hours of un-catalogued mission control recordings happened to land in the filmmaker's lap is a story nearly as remarkable as that of the voyage itself. And nearly as complicated. So I will leave you with a link to it. Unlike that visited by those three astronauts, my space isn't infinite.

When Miller began work on the project in 2016, he had none of that priceless material. All he had was a green light from CNN Films to come up with something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing this summer. Now that I've seen Apollo 11, it's not easy to imagine how else he could have done it. The digitized video and crisply restored audio of communications among members of the massive Houston flight team are the blood and bones of this riveting experiment.

You know the story, of course, but you've never experienced it in the way Miller has now made possible. His masterstroke was scrapping the customary documentary trappings — talking heads, re-creations, narration and the rest. Instead, he oversaw a process through which those startlingly vivid images and all that mission control chatter were synced to the precise second. What wound up on screen is history unfolding unfiltered before our eyes in what feels like real time.

If, back in 1969, one of the networks had made a reality show about the men on this milestone odyssey, it might have looked a lot like this. They didn't. Luckily, Miller did, and it's one giant leap for movies.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Apollo 11"