This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and humans first landing on the moon. To celebrate, a new documentary recreates the eight days of the mission in July 1969 through a wealth of archival materials, much of which had gone undiscovered until now. There are no interviews or narrators; the only “talking head” is the recorded voice of Walter Cronkite explaining the logistics of the flight to TV viewers of the time. Some simple computer-generated visuals are provided to lay out how each spacecraft maneuver will work, so that viewers can understand what they are looking at as it unfolds. Mainly, though, the only dialogue comes from the chatter of NASA technicians and the astronauts, a continual flow of officious jargon, almost relaxing in how calmly and assuredly they speak it.
That audio comes from over 11,000 hours of uncatalogued recordings from the National Archives. Director Todd Douglas Miller and his crew undertook a monumental effort to listen to, document, and sort the material, which came from the tracks of devices assigned to more than 60 NASA personnel who worked on the Apollo program. This is a process that took them years to go through.
But even more impressive are the visuals. The making of the film spurred Miller’s contact at the National Archive to investigate some old Apollo-related film canisters held in storage. What he discovered was a trove of 70mm film footage. It is beautiful, extensive, in pristine condition — and completely forgotten until that point. The footage, shot by NASA employees and a film crew working on the documentary Moonwalk One, presents numerous views of the event not previously available, not just of the mission in progress but also of the crowds which had gathered to watch the Apollo 11 launch, and then to see the astronauts after their return to Earth.
Apollo 11, then, is not just a new presentation of a well-known event, but also a work of cinematic and historical preservation. Similarly to other recent documentaries like That Summer or the upcoming, previously unreleased Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace, it uses period materials to re-familiarize contemporary audiences with bygone subjects. This is history not retold, but told by the people who lived it.
Apollo 11 is worthwhile simply for this unearthed footage. It looks astonishing, the mint-condition film flawlessly transferred into digital, and then synced to the original audio files perfectly. The result is a first-person view of the flight and moon landing, often shot from cameras attached to the craft. One riveting sequence follows the landing itself in real time, seen from an externally mounted camera, with a digital readout counting down both the lander’s distance from the ground and the level of fuel left in its tank. It’s remarkably suspenseful, even though one already knows that everything will go fine. That kind of immediacy is possible only through this kind of filmmaking.
Apollo 11 is currently playing exclusively in IMAX theaters. It will be released nationwide on March 8.