Critic's Notebook: A Lost Apollo 11 Doc Lands in French Theaters

The 1970 NASA-produced "Moonwalk One" was never distributed in the United States

It's been a year since Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity premiered at the Venice Film Festival and quickly skyrocketed into the critical and box-office stratosphere, grossing more than $700 million worldwide while earning its director his first Oscar. Audiences who marveled at the movie's breathtaking depiction of space travel, re-created via jaw-dropping special effects and stereoscopic cinematography, now have the chance to see the real deal on the big screen. All they have to do is hop a flight to Paris.

Released in France this summer, the official NASA-funded Apollo 11 documentary Moonwalk One is finally resurfacing in theaters after a near 45-year absence. Shot and edited by New York filmmaker-artist Theo Kamecke, Moonwalk is a gripping time capsule that details the world's most famous space mission, where astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin orbited into history by being the first humans to ever land on the moon. Made with actual footage culled from up to 240 cameras that captured both the initial launch on July 16, 1969, and the 9-day mission that followed, the film is a vital scientific document, a portrait of late '60s America and a visually cogent exploration of man's place in the universe — one that recalls (and owes some debt to) Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely enough, Moonwalk One has never been seen by a widespread audience. Originally slated as a multimillion-dollar project produced by NASA and to be distributed by MGM, the production fell through months before Apollo 11 blasted off. Cutting the budget to a few hundred thousand, NASA eventually hired Kamecke, who had edited the 1964 Oscar-winning documentary short To Be Alive!, to direct a more compact feature-length version. But when the film was completed two years later, there were no American distributors around who wanted to release it. A premiere at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and a subsequent screening at the Whitney Museum helped garner some attention, but only a handful of select movies theaters wound up screening Moonwalk at the time.

In 2007, the film was uncovered by the U.K. outfit The Attic Room, which tracked down Kamecke — now working as a sculptor in upstate New York — and found that he held the only remaining 35mm print. Released on DVD and Blu-ray, then broadcast in England by Discovery Channel, Moonwalk still wouldn't reach screens until the indie French company ED Distribution decided to give it an actual theatrical release this summer. (One important fact is that the movie has no official copyright, as images produced by NASA are generally considered part of the public domain.)

While it's perhaps understandable that Moonwalk One didn't receive much attention back then, with millions having already watched the spectacle live on television, the film now serves as a fascinating historical artifact, documenting both the immense technological feats of the Apollo 11 flight and the men and women who helped make it happen. Beyond the thrilling space footage shot by the astronauts themselves (to which Kamecke added images from earlier missions, as well as a few optical effects) and the movie's most bravura sequence, capturing the rocket launch at the Kennedy Space Center from dozens of angles with varying frame rates, the film also features plenty of behind-the-scenes action that reveals the seldom seen, quotidian side of the expedition.

Shots of Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins suiting up for takeoff are intercut with scenes of life in the makeshift city that popped up around Kennedy, with thousands of gawkers arriving in their Winnebagos and camping out until the big day. Other footage focuses on some of the unknown faces behind the project, including the technicians who helped design Apollo's dauntingly complex structure and the handful of expert seamstresses who stitched together the astronauts' space suits.

But Kamecke also seems to be going for something beyond pure factual documentation, as evidenced by a lofty voiceover that sounds like Carl Sagan narrating a Terrence Malick movie, referring to Earth as a "fragile bubble of life that floats on a sea of nothing." Beginning and ending with a sequence set at Stonehenge, from which the director initially cuts to booster rockets being wheeled to the launch pad (the same way Kubrick famously cut from the bone to the satellite in his film), Moonwalk One ultimately uses the Apollo 11 mission to explore humankind's relationship to the cosmos just as Armstrong takes his first small step onto the moon. It's an ambitious attempt to capture an unheralded moment and one that was done without 3D or CGI, highlighting the gravity of reality itself.