On July 16th, 1969, a Saturn V rocket containing three hopeful cosmonauts set off from a launchpad on Merritt Island. It was an event of unparalleled proportions, and one that was duly witnessed by the world over – all holding their breath at the prospect of mankind venturing out towards the final frontier and leaving their dusty footprints on one of its moons. In images that have since become immortalized, Neil Armstrong fulfilled those hopes: his one small step emblematic of Earth’s finest achievement, but also paving the way for the United States to become the global superpower.
Fifty years on, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary has confronted the ubiquity of such a seismic event in what is not so much a revisionist upheaval as it is a fresh refocusing of attention – turning our collective gaze towards the spectacular inwards and reminding us of Apollo 11’s very event-ness.
Opting against the use of interviews or voiceover narration, Apollo 11 feels relievedly comfortable in allowing the archival footage to speak for itself; and what a catalog of images it presents, with the recent discovery of a previously-unreleased cache of 70mm celluloid giving this documentary an immediacy and vigour – the absence of such characteristics often plaguing similar attempts within the genre. Much like last year’s Swinging Sixties doc My Generation, Miller’s film is an archival triumph that bursts with color at every seam, and on such a vast scale. It lounges in the euphoric feverishness of the spectating crowds, and, fortunately, we are allowed to indulge too: Coca Cola tinnies and Krispy Kreme’s original glazed™ abound.
It’s a fever, too, that spreads throughout the various sub-teams at mission control. Though the images that are seemingly ingrained into our collective memory from birth are those of the lunar surface, or of the launch itself, the film makes a convincing case for the ellipses: spectators lounging on their deckchairs, and blue-collar workers stressing out over a leaking valve. From the suits to the scientists, it’s a treatment that feels like so much more than cogs in a machine; these are the faces that go unshown, and a hilarious shot of those workers blessed with a window view of the launch – huddled together with binoculars and sunglasses – is emblematic of Apollo 11’s defining asset: its love for humanity.
While it rather ironically loses its momentum as we soar through outer space, it’s less this natural narrative slump that blights the film as it is a partial failure to fully interrogate the event. Nixon congratulates the lunar-wandering astronauts in a propagandistic speech promising to bring “peace” back to Earth; the very real and pressing phantom of Vietnam, meanwhile, merely lingers through the television screens in the background. And while the vibrancy of the spectating jamboree is admittedly hard to resist, it remains a ‘collective’ and national celebration so long as that nation is a very white, middle America.
Is it not the responsibility of a film – a documentary, no less – to raise such moral quandaries? The huge wave of discontent felt by many economically deprived, minority communities towards the Space Race is nowhere to be seen here – with barely a single word-spoken from Gil Scott-Heron in any tokenistic nod à la First Man. And if Apollo 11 is to be the definitive moon landing documentary, such omissions are to carry infinitely more weight. Most of all, it points to a habitual failing on the part of Space Race documentaries – highlighting the long line of cinematic and televisual ignorance amongst which Apollo 11 now, regrettably, joins.
All of this is not to take away from the scale of Miller’s achievement – nor from the extra-terrestrial feat itself. Experienced through the towering immersion of the cinematic screen, Apollo 11 is that rarest of documentaries that genuinely rivals its science-fictional counterparts in spectacle. And in this respect, it’s refreshing; gone are the days when movies beyond the cinematic universe can demand our attendance in the theatre.
For all of its ignorant blind spots, Apollo 11 demands just that: front-row seats for the 50th anniversary of when mankind chose to go to the moon.