For those who have grown up on Star Trek or Star Wars, it might be hard to imagine the enormity of Apollo 11, but this year a few movies and TV programs attempt to take us back to those heady days when the US won the race to the moon. Following in the wake of the Oscar-winning biopic, “First Man,” this must-see documentary “Apollo 11” uses archival footage in a way that’s more thrilling and touching than the recent Oscar-nominated documentary short on racism (“A Night at the Garden”) and is a good lead in for the PBS July special American Experience six-hour film “Chasing the Moon.” Both are essential parts of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
In the year 1969, NASA was on a tight schedule. Apollo 9 was launched to test the lunar module in March and safely returns. Apollo 10 is launched in May and flies to within 15,400 miles of the moon’s surface. On July 16th, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are launched into space for an eight-day three-hour mission that changed the world.
In a phone interview, director Todd Douglas Miller related that he was “negative seven” during the Apollo 11 mission. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he grew up in the “age of the shuttle.” He was in the third grade when the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger ended with the death of all seven crew members.
The Apollo missions were a remnant of presidential Camelot. President John F. Kennedy proposed in a May 25, 1961 address to Congress the goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the decade. The Apollo missions began with a disaster. The 1967 Apollo 1 never flew; a cabin fire killed all three crew members.
Growing up in Ohio, Miller explained you’re made aware of the Ohio-born Neil Armstrong (Wapakoneta) and John Glenn (Cambridge), but growing up he only had a casual interest in space, but when his company began going through the NASA and National Archives to re-scan and digitize 16 and 35 mm film related to the Apollo 11 mission, this project coalesced because they had what he calls the “surprise of the century for us or at least the last 50 years.” The research team found large format film that had been untouched. “We didn’t know what was on it at the time.”
The digitalization involved three years of intensive work what was “anxiety-driven” because the rare film has to be transported out of Washington DC and up to Miller’s facilities in New York. Miller confesses “I didn’t sleep until it was back in cold storage.” But Miller got more help along the way. An obsessive Apollo 11 fan, Stephen Slater (not to be confused with JetBlue two-beers flight attendant Steven Slater) had been lip synching mission control footage to the recorded audio.
As people in the space community “caught wind of our project and started giving us materials.” The task then became winnowing down the materials to a 90-minute version. Some of what you don’t see in the documentary will be available later.
The film is divided up into days and while we don’t get much information about the families, Miller flashes quick montages to give us a sense of who these three men were, at least in the eyes of the public. The documentary has unexpected delights. We get a glimpse of JoAnn Morgan, the first female engineer at NASA in the first firing room. We also see Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, a Texas attorney who was a “computress” and the first female engineer so work in NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo Program. While she’s not highlighted in this documentary, she is extensively interviewed in the upcoming PBS special, “Chasing the Moon.”
You’ll also see faces of color, including an African American man who analyzed the daily radiation levels of the astronauts. Miller was able to identify people and highlight them by showing their names and titles.
Simple white outlines on a black background help explain the mechanics of the mission. Miller said these illustrations were inspired by similar cell animation in a 1970 documentary, “Moonwalk One.” Miller decided that “if the tech guys love and my mother loves it,” this is definitely the way to go.
Miller, who thought Damien Chazelle did a “fantastic job” on “First Man,” used many of the same technical advisors. If you were one of those who growsed about the lack of flag-planting in “First Man,” don’t worry. You’ll see it in this documentary. Miller recommends seeing “Apollo 11” in IMAX with laser, but if you miss the special one-week run in IMAX beginning March 1 you can still see from March 8 when the film widens to regular screenings. You’ll also get a second chance in July this movie will be re-released along with other moon landing and space-related events celebrate the 50th anniversary.
–Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly