Apollo 11 (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A vivid, riveting time capsule

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Documentary film “Apollo 11” takes us right into that monumental space mission in 1969, and it did a pretty awesome job through its remarkable assembly of archival footage clips and recordings which do not look that old at all even though they come from 50 years ago. During my viewing, I often found myself completely immersed in many vivid moments in the documentary, and then I was all the more amazed as observing how clear and pristine these moments actually look despite their age.

As far as I came to know via IMDB Trivia and Wikipedia, nearly all of the archival footage clips and recordings shown in the documentary were really made during that time. During the cooperation between director/co-producer/editor Todd Douglas Miller’s production team, NASA, and the National Archives and Records Administration in May 2017, they discovered heaps of footage clips and recordings which were never released before, and what is shown in the documentary was assembled from over 11,000 hours of audio recordings and hundreds of hours of video footage.

Those footage clips and recordings presented in the documentary do not feel dated at all thanks to not only first-rate high-resolution digital scans of original footage clips but also high-tech audio recording improvement. To be frank with you, I was actually caught off guard as beholding the eye-popping details of the opening scene which shows the launch pad for a Saturn V rocket containing the spacecraft inside its tip, and the verisimilitude of this scene was more than enough to grab my attention right from the beginning.

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As the countdown begins, the documentary shows us various sights revolving around the mission, and, in a way reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman’s documentary films, Miller wisely lets images and sounds convey to us the tension and excitement surrounding the mission. The documentary does not provide any narration or interview, but we can clearly sense the progress of the mission while occasionally listening to Walter Cronkite reporting on the mission or frequently watching hundreds of NASA employees busily doing their respective jobs. As observing those NASA employees, I could not help but awed by the massive human efforts behind the mission, and then I came to reflect more on how everything clicked together so well during that time.

When the time for the launch finally comes, the documentary pulls all the stops as expected, and it certainly impresses us a lot with a series of terrific moments which definitely surpass whatever was shown in those classic space films such as “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Apollo 13” (1995). While the part showing the launch of the Saturn V rocket is stupefying and galvanizing to say the least, the subsequent docking scene in the space is also compelling to watch, and we never feel lost or confused as the documentary constantly has us informed on the progress of the mission via plain simple animation.

Although the part showing the moon landing may not show anything new to us, the documentary keeps holding attention through its skillful mix of various archival footage clips and audio recordings. Although that famous moment of Neil Armstrong making ‘one giant leap for mankind’ is still presented via those closed-circuit video footage clips, we instead get a number of striking photographs shot by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during that time, and I was also amused by a small certain moment focusing on the physical condition of Armstrong and Aldrin during their landing attempt.

After the moon landing part, the mood becomes less tense than before, and we get a humorous moment showing the astronauts enjoying a folk song, but then the documentary shows us several remaining obstacles during their return to the Earth. For instance, they were disconnected from NASA for a while as expected around the very end of their mission, but anything could go wrong even during that brief moment, and we see everyone at NASA patiently and nervously waiting for getting reconnected with the astronauts.

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Of course, they safely arrived on the Earth in the end, and the last part of the documentary steadily follows what happened next once they were subsequently taken to a US Navy ship waiting for them in advance. For the medical safety, they were quarantined for next 18 days, and you may be tickled to see them wearing masks and protection suits at one point, which did not fit that well with what was inarguably the greatest moment of their life.

Although it could be longer in my humble opinion, the documentary is efficient and effortless in its fluid narrative mainly driven by images and sounds, and Miller, who received the Special Jury Award for Editing when the documentary was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, deserved to be commended for his dexterous handling of those archival footage clips and audio recordings. In case of Matt Morton’s synthesizer score, it felt rather redundant to me at first, but it is pretty effective on the whole with some retro touches, and I was not so surprised to learn later that his score was entirely performed by authentic synthesizers from the 1960s as a matter of fact.

Besides being one of the best documentaries of this year, “Apollo 11” is a superb cinematic experience to be admired and appreciated. Although I wish I could watch it in a big theater, I had a pretty fantastic time anyway, and I am already eager to revisit it for savoring its many memorable moments more. In short, this is a great documentary, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to watch it as soon as possible.

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