Apollo 11 is a rather straightforward documentary; it brings us on a chronological journey through the first successful moon landing and return purely through contemporary footage. There’s no historian to add context, no modern flourishes besides a soundtrack. This is a historical film that remains rooted in its own era, capturing the first hand experience as best as it can.
Apollo 11 is much more than a rudimentary recollection of a significant event – this is a masterclass in film editing. The film starts a bit before launch and carries through to the men landing back on earth, and it offers several vantage points. It begins by juxtaposing the nervous mission command with the excited public gathered outside to watch the launch. Director and editor Todd Douglas Miller gathers as much disparate footage as he can to tackle several perspectives. Where a film like They Shall Not Grow Old appears to gloss over the small details in service to the bigger picture, Apollo 11 feels more comprehensive by honing in on this specific moment. It might not address the various tests leading up to the launch, but this feels like full coverage of the public event, media frenzy and all.
Miller fits in as many details as he can while keeping the film to a tight hour and a half. He greatly utilizes split screen, whether it be to show conversations between ground level crew and the astronauts or sometimes to simply showcase the exact same moment from different angles. Some moments are montage while other key scenes allow an extended shot to run in full – Miller makes the wise decision of showing the full footage of the actual landing, this nondescript camera angle as a meter counts down the rapidly decreasing altitude.
By summarizing the events so directly, Miller manages to capture a bit of the frenzied zeitgeist this moment represented. By drawing these key moments out, he even adds in a bit of tension that would otherwise be missing since we all know how this story ends. Time is expertly used for atmospheric effect.
Despite the technical proficiency, there are a few moments that come across as a bit of a slog – surprisingly, not in the extended anticipation of the launch but in the slow trips between Earth and the Moon. I ran into the same issue with First Man; there’s no sense of the unknown to the actual journey. First Man was at its best when it was exploring the less publicized tests that led up to Apollo 11, just like Apollo 11 finds strength in the command center. The actual footage from the moon is at times frustrating – the length of the journey necessitated lower frame rates, and a lot of the angles reveal a painfully small amount of the landscape. However, I believe Apollo 11 is doing the best it can with the resources available.
There seems to be two classes of great documentaries – many of the best expose an otherwise overlooked concept, the type of work that can spark outrage in the right hands. Films like Apollo 11 serve more as a literal document – this is a succinct record of a major event that everyone is familiar with as a concept, but with footage neatly gathered in a single, logically-presented place. It’s unlikely to change anyone’s world view, but it certainly is a magnificent summary of one of the most important events we were lucky to catch on film.
4.5 Stars Out of 5