Apollo 11 (2019)

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

I couldn’t let Gibson’s gorefest be the only film I watched in 2019, and I thought it was high time I actually watched something new, given that I haven’t watched any new films since 2016, hence tonight’s viewing. Of course, tonight’s film was actually shot entirely in 1969, so… so much for “new”? Whatever.

Anyway, Todd Miller had apparently just finished making a film on Apollo 17 when someone suggested he tackle 11 as well, and while preparing it a bunch of never-used 65mm film footage was unearthed. Alongside the normal 16 and 35 film plus video, this gives an added sense of awe to an otherwise fairly straightforward film. Don’t know why but the launchpad footage in particular and the shots of the many and varied spectators watching (and recording—the only difference between these people and our generation, clearly, is that they used actual cameras, both film and still) the event put me in mind of Koyaanisqatsi for some reason.

I say straightforward because that’s what it is; Miller opted for the Senna approach of sticking only to the original video and audio and not adding new interviews or narration; all he adds is some diagram animation and captions (which I only wish he’d made a bit larger; they weren’t easily read on the TV screen). It doesn’t really need anything else, though, does it? There’s other documentaries about the space program that do that; I like Miller’s decision to just let the original footage tell the story and watch it unfold without comment. And at 93 minutes it’s finely proportioned and never dull.

And OH how good is that original footage? Scrubbed up beautifully (the video footage from the Apollo cabin and the closed-circuit TV cameras around the launch site looks genuinely remarkable for its age, quite apart from being impressive that it exists at all), the whole film looks amazing, glad I got it on blu-ray. The film might be fairly and straightforward with what it does, but there’s also something thrilling and moving about it as the flight moves through its various stages, from leaving the Earth to landing on the Moon to the lunar module rejoining the command module and the final splashdown.

And also terribly saddening in a way. Cos with hindsight we know now that, in many respects the whole Apollo program was a bit of a Cold War stunt by the Americans to finally actually beat the Soviets at something in space, though obviously that doesn’t take away from the American achievement (the joy at mission control was well-earned). And I grew up in the 80s when there was still some excitement about that… I mean, yeah, there was also the very real threat of nuclear annihilation before we got back into space, but there was also the feeling that we would actually do so nonetheless. We had probes going to the outer planets, and if we hadn’t returned to the Moon since 1972, not to worry. We’d be back there soon enough. There was a vision there.

Not any more. I mean, even at the time there was criticism (not unjustified) that the money spent on the Moon mission could’ve been better spent improving conditions on Earth, but there was still the sense that the knowledge we would gain from the mission was important however much it cost, that the science was worth it in and of itself and would, you know, actually make humanity better. Not any more. In just half a century we’ve slumped into an age where science doesn’t matter to people any more, blowing up the Middle East is more important than anything, and shit like the flat Earth has staged a comeback. However much it may have been driven by political ambition in real terms, there was still a vision to the space race and a sense that it would take us somewhere. I haven’t felt that for a long time, it’s not like people—at least not the ones in a positiont to do anything useful—even seem to care about making this world better instead. Enjoy this film if you watch it too. It’s good to remember that at least at some point this sort of thing mattered.

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