Last year, First Man struggled to connect with audiences in a meaningful way. Perhaps it was following A Star Is Born that caused the failure to launch. Maybe it was the tonal equivalent of Manchester By the Sea that did it. God forbid they not show a flag planting in a personal story about loss and grief. For whatever reason, audiences did not connect to the space epic. That made the idea of Apollo 11, a documentary exclusively focused on the first journey to step foot on the Moon, an iffy proposition. Despite this, director Todd Douglas Miller pushed onward and upward. The result goes beyond a companion film for First Man. Apollo 11 strives for greatness on its own terms, and on the fiftieth anniversary of the actual landing, you can watch the stunning footage collected by news teams, crew, and astronauts themselves.
Apollo 11 begins with the crawler making its way to the launchpad. From the word go, the restored film simply amazes. The crispness of the visuals make it feel as if it were shot today, and the remastered work astounds. Rather than intro the story with narration, Miller lets the visuals do the talking. The collection of footage gives him unusual camera angles for the age, allowing Apollo 11 to co-op modern documentary visual language. Focusing exclusively on the sounds and process of NASA’s Florida base, we are invited into a place of business and work. If you did not know any different, you would never guess that history is about to occur.
As we get closer to the launch, we begin to focus on Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Through flash montages, we learn everything you need to learn about these men. The same goes for the space program. Miller quickly dispenses with the larger examination of NASA’s trials and failures. He focuses the narrative on the mission itself, and the growing anticipation it causes. The behind the scenes footage gives us glimpses into the repressed tension throughout the building. You can read it on everyone’s faces, yet you never hear that worry verbalized. This allows Apollo 11 to quickly build momentum.
The footage assembled simply astounds. Yet the sound design and score elements are integral to the success of the feature. Matt Morton scores the hell out of the film, crafting a sound that not only pays homage to the Apollo 13’s of cinema, but also Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scores. The combination of machine and hope blend brilliantly to deliver a unique piece of composition.
Sound designer and Sound Mixer Eric Milano might have delivered the greatest sounding documentary in years. He was meticulous in his scrubbing of the audio from 1969, almost making it as pristine as the images on the screen. The actual sound design pops, featuring moment after moment of impressive and showy sound work. Milano legitimately deserves Oscar consideration for his accomplishment.
The only real setback for Apollo 11 comes in the last act of the film. Once (SPOILERS) the astronauts are reunited, we already know they make it back to Earth. The visuals are exciting, but re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere does not pack the same punch as landing on the Moon. This leaves the last act a little flat, and while the team makes the most of the footage available to them. This might be a case of the first two-thirds of Apollo 11 being so fantastic, the final act fails to compare.
Apollo 11 stakes an early claim to be the best documentary of the year. Thanks to brilliant restoration, a perfect auditory experience, and extraordinary footage, you can feel the triumph of the moment. For those of us who were not alive when the Moon Landing occurred, you feel the pride of the feat. Apollo 11 remarkably captures the humanity behind the journey and bottles into what will likely become the definitive documentary on the subject.