WITNESS THE LAST TIME WE WERE ONE.
1969 was seven years away from my birth. I can’t imagine what it was like to watch Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon, or hearing about it on the radio. Now we have a movie that takes us back to 1969 and closer to the lunar landing in a more spectacular way than we could ever imagine. Many documentaries can just as well be seen on a smaller TV screen, but this one should be enjoyed in a cinema.
It took only three years for the American public to lose interest in expeditions to the moon. The last one was Apollo 17 in 1972. In 2016, director Todd Douglas Miller was making a short documentary about that mission, The Last Steps, when CNN Films wanted to have a word with him. They were interested in making a film about the first manned lunar landing for the 50th anniversary. Miller agreed to do it and Apollo 11 would be made the same way as The Last Steps – no narration or talking heads, just archive footage edited to tell the story in 90 minutes.
A common way of beginning such a project is to go to the archives and play detective. In this case, Miller and his team found astonishing material that the public had never seen before. They were lucky enough to get their hands on large-format footage that NASA had shot. The agency had a taste for the cinematic; after making a deal with MGM and a filmmaker, the material documenting the launch and all the people watching it in Florida was shot on high-quality widescreen film. Some of the footage was used for a movie called Moonwalk One (1971), but plenty of it landed in the archives.
Stunned to see the results
When Miller and his team ran the old footage through modern equipment they were stunned to see the results – so are we in the audience. Right from the start, as we see the gigantic crawler-transporter slowly bring the rocket launcher in place, it feels like this must have been shot now, not 50 years ago. The images are crisp, perfectly accompanied by sound effects that make everything seem one hundred per cent authentic, not something that’s been created now.
The filmmakers introduce us to the three men who are about to climb into the rocket – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. We don’t really need narration because Miller skillfully shows us everything we need to know. A look into Armstrong’s face launches a quick montage of footage from his earlier experiences at NASA, hard and dangerous work, and with his family. Tension is high right from the start. Then comes the launch, a sequence that will have the hairs on your arms stand up, as we witness the rocket rise, Matt Morton’s superb music score (recorded only on electronic instruments available in 1969) reaching its thundering crescendo. Miller, who also edited the film, cuts to the faces of the spectators; it’s easy to understand why they’re in awe. This footage, of regular people hanging out before the launch, is also fascinating, bringing us closer to those times.
Once the lunar module has safely landed on the moon, we are treated to grainy footage as well as those jaw-droppingly sharp photos of the dusty landscape that Armstrong and Aldrin took.
Not all of the technical information we learn is compelling throughout, but this film still makes the whole wondrous project look so simple. One can’t help marvel at what was accomplished 50 years ago because Democrats and Republicans decided this was worth doing and followed through over many years, regardless of which party was in power. The tagline says this was the last time Americans were united. There’s a grain of truth in that.
Apollo 11 2019-U.S. 93 min. Color-B/W. Widescreen. Produced by Evan Krauss, Todd Douglas Miller, Thomas Petersen. Directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller. Music: Matt Morton.
Last word: “When it came time to do ’11’, I knew that there were scenes in there that no one had ever put on film. [When] they light the fire to actually go to the moon after they’ve been in orbit for a couple of revolutions around the earth – all the astronauts write about it. It usually happens on the dark side of the earth. Neil Armstrong was interviewed during the 40th anniversary, and he was asked, ‘What was your most idyllic moment of the mission?’ It wasn’t setting foot on the moon, it wasn’t landing safely, it wasn’t even getting back to earth. It was when they were coming up on the moon and they saw, basically, a solar eclipse of the moon. There was just a circle, and the moon almost looked 3D. The sun is coming up over the earth, and they’re just going into it. They call it the terminator. They go through the terminator and are on their way to the moon. I’d never seen that depicted in either a doc or a fiction film. We had a really good view of that, taken from another mission, that I knew I was going to use. I’d shown it to Mike Collins and to Buzz Aldrin and said, ‘Is this what it looked like?’ ‘Yes, that’s exactly what it looked like.'” (Miller, Filmmaker Magazine)