Review: ‘Apollo 11’ is the most breathtaking film of the year

Moon landings documentary is a truly stratospheric work, says Gregory Wakeman

Apollo 11 (2019)
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It doesn't take long for Apollo 11 to take one's breath away. The documentary's stratospheric scope becomes evident from the very first sequence, as the titular spacecraft is manoeuvred into position so Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins can be blasted on their monentous mission to the Moon.

Director Todd Douglas Miller and his team sifted through hundreds of hours of footage acquired from the US government archives to seemingly recreate every detail of the journey on which Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the lunar surface.

Rather than interviewing those who were involved in the mission, Miller has such a wide variety of footage that he is able to keep the film in the present tense throughout, and consequently Apollo 11 turns into an immersive cinematic experience. This also allows Miller to explore various untold moments from the Apollo 11 mission, and while he also touches upon some of the most exciting elements of the mission, that they have been told an infinite amount of times across a variety of media in the past 50 years means that you don't mind seeing Miller dive into the detail of these incidents.

Not only does it take 22 minutes for Apollo 11 to blast off, but in that time the most exciting thing to happen is the discovery of leaky valve that technicians fix within minutes. It doesn't matter, though Miller's patient and eye-opening approach is so illuminating that you're not just captivated by the detail that went into sending the first men to the Moon, but it is also uplifting – even life-affirming – to watch these achievements unfold. The main reason Apollo 11 proves to be so captivating is the condition of the footage, which is so immaculate that it genuinely looks as though it has been staged, designed and shot on a Hollywood set.

Apollo 11 (2019)

During the opening stages, Miller expertly mixes shots of the spacecraft with footage from the control room, as well as news coverage. We get narration from former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite as he introduces the mission and its objections in his inimitable fashion. We also see photographs and clips of Armstrong, Miller and Collins throughout the years as they were training and of their previous excursions into space, plus shots of the crowd queuing outside of Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, all of which adds a cinematic dynamism that underlines the breadth and scale of the documentary.

Miller's ingenious use of whatever footage he had available is prominent throughout Apollo 11, as photographs of Earth, heart readings and simply a reading of the spacecraft's velocity dropping to alarming levels are incorporated at precisely the right time, and in exactly the right style, to increase the tension in a story to which 99 per cent of viewers know the ending.

Unsurprisingly, watching Apollo 11 actually blast from its launch pad and travel out of the Earth's atmosphere into space is particularly hypnotic and gratifying. But rather than allowing the film to wilt after this excitement, Miller knows that he has hooked his audience so intently he is able explore the science and technology that made this achievement possible.

Miller makes sure to never overindulge or even come close to boring his audience with this minutiae, though. Not only does he compress the three-day journey from Earth to the Moon, but during this time he highlights the skill, intelligence, composure and even humour of Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin.

It must be said that the sheer number and variety of angles and shots throughout the documentary, all genuinely staggering, means it is highly unlikely that all of the footage used is solely from the Apollo 11 mission. Instead, some of it was almost certainly gathered during following treks to the Moon. But Miller integrates it so smoothly and it enhances the story so emphatically that you forgive any transgressions.And while there are more dramatic and thrilling movies that explore space travel, and even depict journeys to the Moon, Apollo 11 ultimately manages to resonate deeper and make more of an impact than any of them because what you are watching actually happened. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, with the help of thousands of Nasa employees, put their lives in jeopardy to show what humans are capable of.

Apollo 11 is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, November 7