The word “awesome” gets reflexively thrown around so much that it’s become devoid of meaning. Chai lattes aren’t awesome. Vanderpump Rules, although entertaining in a bad-decision car-crash sort of way, isn’t awesome. Even the song “Everything Is Awesome” isn’t awesome. Strictly speaking, very few things really inspire a sense of slack-jawed wonder — even fewer that are 50 years old. But the NASA mission at the heart of the must-see documentary Apollo 11 reminds you what it feels to be truly awestruck.
Even if you’ve already seen Damien Chazelle’s recent Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, or the late-’90s HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, or even for that matter the Criterion edition of 1989’s For All Mankind, director Todd Douglas Miller’s new film allows you to experience the first moon landing, on July 20, 1969, in an entirely new and intimate light. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere close enough to see it in an IMAX theater, do it. It’s worth the immersive, sternum-rattling upgrade.
Assembled from a newly discovered archive of 65 mm footage and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio recordings (don’t worry, the 93-minute movie only uses a small fraction of that), Miller’s film opens with a shot of an enormous, hangar-sized crawler hauling the towering Saturn V rocket to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. And the film looks so crisp and pristine, it feels like it was shot yesterday instead of a half-century ago. Only the clothes of the Florida looky-loos tailgating to witness history, the sea of chain-smoking men in white short sleeves and pocket protectors in Mission Control, and the stentorian voice of Walter Cronkite give off a whiff of the past.
Apollo 11, the mission that sent Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon (with Michael Collins lonesomely orbiting like a getaway driver), was a miracle of human endeavor and ingenuity from its fiery, booster-igniting takeoff to its ultimate splashdown. And the film chronicles each stage of the weeklong mission like a tick-tock procedural where everything could go wrong — but somehow didn’t. Miller’s visual collage charitably spreads the credit around beyond just the three men in space, too. The men and women back on terra firma are heroes as well as they crunch numbers and sweat over slide rules.
This is no small thing. Not just in terms of filmmaking, but also as a reminder we could all use about how much we’re capable of as a species. That seems like something worth remembering right now. Apollo 11 — and Apollo 11 — is an inspiring, magical, and transcendent testament to human know-how, ambition, and achievement of the seemingly impossible. It’s, in a word, awesome. A
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