'Apollo 11': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Immersive and experiential, rather than informative.

Todd Douglas Miller's documentary may not be the definitive chronicle of the moon landing, but it features a breathtaking selection of footage of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the historic launch.

There are stories that need to be told, that positively burn with obscurity and lack of exposure.

At this point, the first lunar landing isn't one of them.

However, a lack of necessity can sometimes breed a remarkable freedom, illustrated well by Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11, one of the opening night films at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and destined to gain much more exposure on CNN later in this 50th anniversary year.

Running barely over 90 minutes, Apollo 11 is experiential rather than informative, flexibility it has because any information downloads you might crave are already out there.

Miller's film picks up on the morning of July 16, 1969, with the looming launch of the Saturn V rocket, follows Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins into space, to the moon and then back to Earth safely. If you've seen Damien Chazelle's First Man or the "Mare Tranquilitatis" episodes of HBO's From Earth to the Moon or any of countless TV documentaries and news segments, you know the basics.

The hook of Apollo 11 is that Miller (Dinosaur 13) is working with an astonishing cache of audio and film footage, some shot in pristine and never-before-seen 70 mm. As director and editor, Miller lets that primary source material tell the story exclusively. This is footage shot to chronicle and promote the event as it was happening, a mixture of propaganda, fly-on-the-wall documentation of the historical moment and the on-board recordings accumulated for future expeditions. There are no talking heads, neither experts nor actual participants speaking retrospectively, and no new voiceover narration has been imposed. It's a film presented completely in-the-present and largely without the weight of dramatic irony you might get from showy editing or a melodramatic score.

Apollo 11 is a documentary that practically demands a certain amount of homework be done beforehand, and it enters into a contract with the viewer that perhaps more documentaries should require. It says, "You know this history, at least vaguely. We're not going to waste your time on hand-holding or explanations. In exchange, we'll give you the story you know in a way you haven't seen it told before and we'll do it without filler."

That means Apollo 11 dispenses quickly with character. The three astronauts are presented mid-preparation, getting final refinements to their suits. Like lives flashing before one's eyes, their backstories are captured in a quick torrent of still images — childhood pictures, wedding and graduation shots — and that's that. This documentary won't and can't tell you what was going on in Buzz Aldrin's mind as Neil Armstrong grabbed history with his first lunar steps, nor Armstrong's stray thoughts standing on the edge of a crater waiting to leave. Everybody in the entire documentary has exactly one motivation: the moon. If it was not captured on camera or said out loud, you're left to assume and fill in the blanks if you can or if you choose to. The same is true in the various mission control and operations rooms, where sometimes the men in buzzcuts chain-smoking relentlessly are identified with on-screen chyrons if they're deemed important enough and sometimes they're not, making them just voices working through a command checklist, orders awaiting a confirmation, pieces of a whole.

It also means that Apollo 11 dispenses explaining or simplifying mission objectives. Key maneuvers are sketched out with rudimentary graphics and then play out accompanied only by the mission control chatter and occasional insights from public affairs officers who were on-hand in Houston and Cape Canaveral offering information to assembled press and, via loudspeakers, to the crowds. If you don't know or remember the exact logistics of, say, the lunar descent, though, you're just watching the all-too-fast approach to the moon via cameras positioned on the Eagle, accompanied by chyrons providing details on fuel time and altitude. The tension of the moment makes sense because of the data, the ever-closer destination and Matt Morton's score which, at its best, takes on a Reznor-esque ambient drone. Before it becomes perhaps excessively melodic at the end, Morton's compositions wisely opt to combine with Eric Milano's sound design to build a high pressure, unsettled mood without attempting to manipulate viewer response.

That response is likely to be primarily awe. Much of the footage in Apollo 11 is, by virtue of both access and proper preservation, utterly breathtaking. The sense of scale, especially in the opening minutes, sets the tone as rocket is being transported to the launch pad and resembles nothing so much as a scene from Star Wars only with the weight and grandeur that come from 6.5 million pounds of machinery instead of CG. The cameraman's astonishment is evident and it's contagious. The same is true of long tracking shots through the firing room as the camera moves past row after row after row of computers, row after row after row of scientists and engineers whose entire professional careers have led to this moment. The full collaboration is captured beyond The Buzz-n-Neil Show. In space, there's a combination of physical and technological constraints, but the imagery is still beautiful and the opportunity to have a movie with Buzz Aldrin as one of a dozen credited cinematographers is pretty special.

Oh and to answer the question sure to be asked by Republican senators and conservative media outlets: The planting of the American flag on the moon's surface is featured from at least three or four different cameras and angles, as is the audio where Armstrong tells Richard Nixon that this is an honor and privilege for them representing both the United States and "men of peace of all nations."

Apollo 11 isn't all spectacle, though. Instead of individual characters, the documentary has blocks of humanity. Some of its best moments feature the witnesses of the spectacle, shots of the crowds assembled at several removes and distances provide a sea of excited reactions, anxious anticipation and even the calm of people camped out to be present for history. In the various control rooms, there are overheard conversations that include small beats of humor and even outside context, like conversations about the day's other big news stories, namely Vietnam and the unfolding tragedy at Chappaquiddick.

I don't think Apollo 11 should be anybody's first or only exposure to the moon landing and its greatest strength is in recognizing that. Its perspective and immediacy are impressive on their own and the documentary takes a worthwhile and distinctive place within the wider storytelling of this important event.

Production Company: CNN Films
Distributor: NEON
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Producers: Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Petersen, Evan Krauss
Executive Producers: Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton, Josh Braun
Editor: Todd Douglas Miller
Music: Matt Morton
Sound Design/Mix: Eric Milano
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

93 minutes