Bringing the moon landing to life with archive documentary 'Apollo 11'

27 Jun 2019 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

6 mins
Apollo 11
Apollo 11

Fifty years in the making, Apollo 11 is an extraordinary documentary which tells the story of man's miraculous mission to the Moon entirely through archive footage.

On July 16, 1969, almost fifty years ago to the day, astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins launched the Apollo 11 mission. Four days later, on July 20, Armstrong was the first human to walk on the surface of the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin would spend little over an hour on the surface of the Moon, with Michael Collins left to man the space shuttle. On July 24, the crew safely returned to Earth having lived to tell the tale of what is maybe mankind's brightest moment.

Alongside a glut of high-profile space movies in recent years from major directors - Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron (2013), Interstellar by Christopher Nolan (2014) and The Martian by Ridley Scott (2015) to name just three - the Moon landings and their major players, specifically Neil Armstrong, have been celebrated with Damien Chazelle's First Man last year, with a documentary titled Armstrong set to follow in two weeks' time. Apollo 11, though, arrives into cinemas now not just because of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but also because state-of-the-art technology finally exists to restore the archive materials used to a pristine condition.

The film's director, Todd Douglas Miller, was approached in 2016 by CNN Films to make a film with the upcoming anniversary in mind. With cooperation from both NASA and the National Archives and Records Administration, previously unseen 70mm footage was discovered and restored to immaculate quality. At times this feels less like a restorative documentary and more like a momentous event in the past has been captured by modern cameras and technology by virtue of time travel. The clarity of the image is astonishing - from the iconic scenes of the rocket soaring through the sky or the initial panoramic view of the Moon's surface to the everyday crowd scenes - and this is a testament to the film's archivists and post-production staff.

Asif Kapadia changed the trajectory for modern documentaries in 2010 with his release of bio-doc Senna, telling the beautiful yet tragic story of the eponymous Brazilian Formula 1 driver entirely through archive material, with voiceover aiding the narrative, but with an absence of static talking heads. Kapadia reminded the world that documentary is cinema too and should therefore adhere to the medium's visual storytelling. How fitting, then, that just two weeks after Kapadia returned with his latest victim of fame, in Diego Maradona, another magnificently cinematic, archive-led documentary arrives in the form of Apollo 11.

This is also a documentary which, at times, takes its cues from fiction films, and the crossover between non-fiction and narrative cinema is a gap which has become increasingly smaller over recent years. Apollo 11's score, editing and pace create a sense of urgency and tension at certain key moments, most notably the countdown-to-launch sequence as well as the Moon landing itself, both of which rival top-notch set pieces in tense thrillers (another great example of the thriller-documentary genre hybrid is last year's death-defying Free Solo). Demonstrating the attention-to-detail shown, the score, in keeping with the rest of the film and its overall approach, contains only instruments and effects which existed at the time of the mission a tenet which the director closely stuck to throughout filming.

The aforementioned sixty second countdown-to-launch sequence is aided by extraordinary visuals which really bring home the ferocity and magnitude of what is essentially an intended, controlled, large-scale explosion to propel the rocket into the air. It is a testament to the fact that even actions which are usually associated with negative consequences (in this case explosions) can still bring about positive outcomes, and First Man also reminds us of that; of the hard work and sacrifice of astronauts which went into so many failed missions before this one in order for Apollo 11 to be a success. The various shots of hundreds of NASA employees, with Michael Collins thanking the countless staff in his speech upon his return - as well as the touching credits sequence which forms the names of the key players into an ‘11' shape - bring home the enormity of it the mission, and the many, many individuals who played their part, a sentiment explored more fully in films such as Hidden Figures.

As well as providing magnificent spectacle, the film is extremely rich for history students. Though the context of the Space Race is not unpacked in any great detail, patriotism and national pride are evoked throughout, featuring John F. Kennedy's momentous speech in 1961 in which he claimed man would land on the Moon within a decade. The planting of the US flag on the Moon and the salute given to it are grand, emotional moments, and yet it's the words of Neil Armstrong and then-US President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who celebrate the occasion by heralding it as a triumph for all nations, speaking about the prospect of world peace. As well as history, it is also a film ripe for students of science. The Moon landing sequence, as well as being incredibly tense, is so enlightening in the way it's presented; requiring rapid deceleration, at an alarming rate because of the dwindling fuel supplies, demonstrating the pinpoint precision required, lest disaster await.

How impressive to do all of this fifty years ago, when our understanding of technology and science was not as it is now; a cocktail of hard work, good luck, solid science and blind faith. How impressive too of those behind the documentary to take an achievement so celestial in scale and somehow convey the magic of it; the perfect symbiosis of history, technology and storytelling. Apollo 11 is up there with the very best humanity has had to offer in its existence, and the film's greatest achievement is to somehow do it justice.

Make no mistake, this is one of the cinematic events of the year: every young person in the country should watch this film.

Apollo 11 is released in cinemas and IMAX on Friday 28 June.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator (Learning)

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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