The exploration of space was a big part of my childhood, but one I hadn’t thought about for over forty years. I was two when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon, and so my math tells me, this year is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. In honor of that great achievement comes Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary masterpiece, Apollo 11.
Miller was tasked with scouring through hundreds of hours of NASA footage and piece together a 93-minute film documenting everything from the rollout of the Apollo rocket to its launch pad to the crews meeting with President Nixon upon their return to earth. And we’re talking everything.
Apollo 11 manages to accomplish about a dozen amazing feats in documentary filmmaking. The easy one is the crisp high-definition NASA footage from start to finish. Let me add you have to see Apollo 11 in IMAX. Every other format is inferior, including your television and smartphone.
“…everything from the rollout of the Apollo rocket to its launch pad to the crews meeting with President Nixon…”
One of the most iconic moments in CG filmmaking was the recreation of the rocket launch in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. That recreation is chicken-s**t compared to the actual HD footage in Apollo 11. You have to remind yourself constantly, this is real. There are no special effects.
Adding to this, we witness the entire launch starting at T-minus three minutes to Apollo reaching earth’s orbit. A nice little digital timer is provided in the corner for our pleasure and much needed perspective. That timer will come back for the actual touchdown on the moon and return to earth.
There are moments requiring computer animation but done in a way to visually illustrate and provide context to the preparation of the LEM and command module for its three-day excursion to the moon and the mechanics behind landing on the moon and crew return to the command module.
As you’d expect, there’s a lot of footage of the crew including Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, as well as the team in Houston. All this to say that Miller does a thorough job bringing in every critical aspect of that mission using rarely-seen archival footage.
“Morton’s pounding soundtrack brings a heavy tension to something as simple as a countdown…”
But what sends the documentary out of its orbit is the brilliant and mesmerizing soundtrack by Matt Morton and the sound design by Eric Milano. Morton’s pounding soundtrack brings a heavy tension to something as simple as a countdown and to an event that you know the final outcome. Spoiler Alert: Everyone’s fine.
Then to Milano’s sound design. You rarely ever think about sound design in movies these days. Forty years ago, we listened to music on the Hi-Fi on either a record or on a magnetic reel-to-reel tape. All that sound was recreated brilliantly from the 60s to today’s modern blow-your-ears-out theater sound system.
Apollo 11 is the definitive documentary film about man’s greatest achievement in space and science. In the immortal words of Sam the Eagle, its was a fantastic accomplishment for humanity “but mostly America.”
Apollo 11 screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Listen to our interview with Apollo 11 director Todd Douglas Miller on the Film Threat Podcast.
"…this is real. There are no special effects"