'Apollo 11' is compelling, even without embellishment

by Willem Gerrish | 4/2/19 2:00am

In my review for HBO’s “The Inventor,” I wrote about the varying necessities of documentary art, focusing on the balance between pure recording and critical analysis. I acknowledged that some documentaries only require the deft eye of observance, while others, such as “The Inventor,” need an extra layer of insight and analysis to fully succeed. Todd Douglas Miller’s extraordinary new documentary “Apollo 11” succeeds with such simplicity as a documentary entirely composed of recorded moments and devoid of any analytical imposition. As such a work of art, it is a marvelous testament to the sheer power of observance, carried not by narrative or analysis but rather by the awe and wonder of what it captures on camera. 

Miller made the brave and powerful decision to craft his documentary mostly out of footage that already exists, using film taken at the time of the Apollo 11 launch in July of 1969, including some astonishing 70mm shots only recently discovered by Miller’s production team and the National Archives. This 70mm film is nothing short of wondrous — the shots are so sweeping, vibrant and crystalline that it was hard for me to believe they had been captured almost 50 years ago. Using this footage gives Miller the ability to imbue the film with a cinematographic splendor, bringing a distinct level of visual elegance to a movie otherwise primarily concerned with the beauty of truth. 

As director and editor, Miller had the daunting task of assembling thousands of hours of found footage into a cohesive, affecting and entertaining feature-length film. To make it even more difficult, he eschewed all narration and interviews, so that he could not tie the footage together with voice-overs or explanations that ease the singular identity of the film. In the face of all these challenges, Miller did a remarkable job, creating an hour and a half of engrossing documentary art, accented by a resounding score by Matt Morton and some crafty editing. In one of Miller’s most unique and incredible moves, he gives the viewer information on the background of Apollo 11’s three astronauts not by stilted narrative explanation but by a fleeting collection of videos and images. As mission commander Neil Armstrong suits up, Miller shows us a quick collection of photos of Armstrong throughout the years, followed by pictures of Armstrong with his wife and kids and footage of his exploits as a test pilot. This all flashes on the screen in a matter of seconds, bookended by shots of Armstrong’s placid face in preparation for spaceflight, rendering the experience like that of Armstrong reflecting on the memories that brought him to the precipice of one of the most important voyages in human history. Miller repeats this process for both Lunar Module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Command Module pilot Michael Collins, establishing the notion of personal history without bogging the film down in hackneyed retrospection. It’s an extraordinary move of directing and editing, and for that decision alone I am inclined to heap praise upon Miller. 

But it’s not just that one scene that evidences Miller’s impressive directing. He created visual and aural transitions that are deft to the point of subtlety, including a still shot of the towering Saturn V rocket that becomes a child’s model in the backseat of a car as spectators gather to watch the launch. Later on, during a shot of Aldrin spinning a radio in zero gravity while playing the song “Mother Country” by John Stewart, the audio blends from the garbled quality of the original footage to the pristine sound of actual musical overlay as Miller uses the song to highlight a montage of the crew returning home to earth. These transitions are clean and effortless, allowing what is essentially a cobbled-together tapestry of footage to feel cohesive and intentional. 

Miller also makes smart use of detail to accent the film at appropriate moments. During scenes of important rocket maneuvers where fuel, velocity and timing are of the utmost importance, Miller puts these parameters on screen, showing fuel levels, rocket speeds and countdowns. These allow the audience to recognize the precision and tension of moments such as the lunar landing, carried out with just about the last drop of fuel remaining. It lends a sense of drama and intrigue to events that have already been recounted thousands of times in media and literature. 

To speak more to Miller’s stunning amount of detail, I want to mention one of my favorite small decisions Miller made for the film: inclusion of the astronauts’ heart rates, including their pre-launch levels of 110 BPM for Armstrong, 99 BPM for Collins and 88 BPM for Aldrin. These heart rates indicate the general level of tension and anxiety for each astronaut, serving to show the audience much more than any lame description could ever tell them. This detail comes roaring back later in the film when, after finally landing on the moon, Armstrong’s heart rate is 156 BPM. 

Ultimately, what truly sets “Apollo 11” apart as a work of documentary filmmaking is its utter reliance on that basic tenet of the craft: the idea of the “documentary,” in the purest sense of the word. It’s a film that serves to document, record and observe and leave that on screen to speak for itself. The lack of narration and interviews allows the film to never stray from its intense obsession with observation, putting it in a unique class of nonfiction work that succeeds without the need for a written narrative. It reminds me of “An Oral History of the Contemporary World,” a legendary book-that-never-was composed of conversations heard and assembled by a homeless Greenwich Village writer named Joe Gould. Journalist Joseph Mitchell wrote about Gould in two famous pieces for “The New Yorker,” determined to find Gould’s manuscript of pure documentary art, only to discover that the book didn’t actually exist. “Apollo 11” is the type of documentary that “An Oral History” could have been — a work predicated on truth and defined by the powers of observance.