Have you ever wondered what it was like to put a man on the moon?
Billed as Apollo 11: The IMAX Experience, this exciting new documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, which features never-before-seen 70mm footage, opens for a one week engagement in IMAX theaters on March 1st. Apollo 11 answers the question in pictures, with some titles and journalistic narration. It’s a purely manmade cinematic adventure in 90 minutes.
With the low rumble of the gigantic vehicle that moved the rocket ship into place, followed by a cautionary yellow light, the movie begins with wordless, scoreless archival motion pictures. listen to the sound of a helicopter. See the launchpad bathed in light the night before the rocket launch. Hear CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite’s voice telling his audience that the ship is perched on pad 39A.
As long as you don’t expect straight, narrative reporting, let alone storytelling, this stark movie’s a rare chance to experience the historic mission to put a man on the moon in a movie theater. Except for television programming, including Apollo 11 programs for PBS and HBO, this “one giant leap for mankind” has never been depicted as a cohesive movie. Last year’s movie about the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, originated with stories about Armstrong. 1978’s fictional Capricorn One starring O.J. Simpson, James Brolin and Sam Waterston implied that it might have never happened. In the 50 years since Americans put a man on the moon, the most popular space movie based on fact, Apollo 13, focused on what Americans did when something went wrong with a moon mission.
Apollo 11 isn’t going to be the definitive movie about this great moment in history. It is too limited and journalistic for that. With black and white pictures of the astronauts and their families at various stages of their lives and careers, it also moves too fast without any titles or exposition.
But the tale of the grand and sacred achievement by Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin (inexplicably known as Buzz) and Michael Collins and NASA comes through and, in Miller’s careful reconstruction, it is magnificent. There are several flaws, such as modern music with its distortions and folksiness, a lack of subtitles and titles and lack of clarity in explaining basic rocket science for a general audience, which detract from the filmmaker’s apparent goal to let the mission impress for itself. As a whole piece, however, Apollo 11 can’t help but induce wonder despite the minimalism.
With rows and rows of computerized banks of men smoking cigarettes, amid machines and paraphernalia emblazoned with the distinctive logo of Apollo 11, the movie matches the 1969 mission’s march toward what Ayn Rand rightly described as a sight of the sublime. Indeed, when Miller chooses to impose the image of a vehicle marked “Family wagon”, it reminded me of Ayn Rand’s brilliant writings about her thoughts on the rocket launch, which she witnessed as a guest at Cape Canaveral, including her contrast of this historic event with the year’s philosophically opposing event, the disastrous concert in the mud at Woodstock in upstate New York.
Aside from the pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon, which linger in sequence from multiple actions and angles aligned with the astronauts’ recorded voices, and the footage of hundreds of men and women, black and white, working to achieve this remarkable goal, the pictures of middle class Americans converging along central Florida’s coastline are among the most striking. Father and child sleeping in the back of a station wagon, footage of a pool of reporters on pay phones and typewriters (did I spot ABC News space journalist Jules Bergman?) and a young woman excitedly looking up to the skies with her pair of binoculars add to the tension, enthusiasm and historical thrill of Apollo 11.
What amounts to the film’s second part begins with the countdown, which included a hydrogen leak as technicians furiously worked to tighten bolts to fix a valve before the three astronauts were launched into the sky. All of this is on display, occasionally with small titles, with American company logos and names such as Bell + Howell, Canon, Boeing and Rockwell International. Look for American VIPs who chose to attend the launch, too, such as actor Hugh O’Brian and Johnny Carson.
As Apollo 11 soars into outer space, the film shifts to Houston. If you’re young, it may take an adjustment to watch the movie without infographics. This is not like a Google’s YouTube amateur production, a meme or a slick video with accompanying words if the sound’s turned off. These are rare historical pictures and footage culled from NASA which reflect the seriousness with which Americans once took, celebrated and revered the manmade. I couldn’t help but notice the meticulous archiving, chronicling, sketching, photographing and recording with which Americans made these films, drawings and pictures. Miller employs simplicity in excellent animation sequences outlining man’s voyage to the moon.
America appears in snapshot with references to Chappaquiddick, the Vietnam War and President Nixon, a mixed-to-bad president who added to the occasion with eloquence. Neil Armstrong comments on “cohesive material” and compares the surface of the moon to the American high desert. Following displays of uniquely American humor, cigar and cigarette smoking and flag waving in mission control and a biblical reference, the aircraft carrier Hornet appears, the musical score distracts and Apollo 11 enters its third, final and re-entry phase. This, too, sneaks up and thrills the audience whether you know this historic event or not.
A jarring appearance by the overly credited President Kennedy lurches the audience back to earth, though, again, Miller shows the Americans in Florida, adding footage of welcome home banners and parades in Chicago and New York City, of all places, as if unearthing cinematic proof that, once upon a time 50 years ago, Americans even in New York cheered for the manmade. Some even worshipped the best in man.
The few who remain should not hesitate to see this short film in theaters.