Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong didn’t quite engage with moviegoers last fall, with Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” limping to about $45 million at the box office and failing to land an Oscar Best Picture nomination.
But what about Neil Armstrong as Neil Armstrong?
That’s what you get with “Apollo 11,” which uses actual footage from the NASA mission that first landed a man on the moon. The film is one of the opening-night documentaries at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, offering a less enveloping but fully captivating look at the mission whose 50th anniversary will arrive in July of this year.
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In a way, it’s unfair to compare “Apollo 11” to “First Man” — but given the timing, it’s also unavoidable. So while Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary doesn’t delve into the famously unemotional Armstrong’s private life, and while it doesn’t deliver the you-are-there feeling you get from the symphony of cockpit creaks, rumbles and roars in Chazelle’s film, it substitutes something just as powerful: the knowledge that we’re seeing what actually happened.
Some of the footage looks familiar, as of course it would in any telling of a story that was so widely documented and so endlessly rewatched. But other scenes almost come as a shock, as Miller unearths shots that seem too vivid, too visceral to have come from the vaults.
As the title suggests, this is not a film about the space program, about the decade-long quest to develop the knowledge and create the machinery to put a man on the moon. This is a story about one mission – one month in the summer of 1969 that begins with the Saturn V rocket being slowly driven to its launching pad in south Florida and ends with Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins emerging from quarantine after the mission.
Miller is after immediacy, not reflection or explanation. The film has no talking heads, no after-the-fact reflections on how it happened, what it felt like or what it all means; it stays in the moment, in footage that was taken or recordings that were made in July 1969.
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There’s perspective and commentary, all right, but often as not it comes in the words of newsmen who were chronicling the events as they happened, and mostly in the voice of the ultimate anchorman, Walter Cronkite, which is to say the voice of America in that turbulent era.
Mostly, this is a blow-by-blow of the mission, condensing eight days in space to less than 80 minutes of screen time. Restricted to existing footage plus some explanatory graphics, the filmmakers manage to explore all facets of a mission that mostly ran like clockwork — and while you wouldn’t be in the theater if you didn’t know how it ends, they manage to throw in enough small surprises and inventive touches to keep a familiar story from flagging.
The Lunar Module’s landing on the moon, which came as fuel levels were getting dangerously low, is captured in footage from a single camera aimed out the window plus three readouts from the instrument panel; a far cry from the high-tech splendor that Chazelle brings to his film’s signature scene, it still manages to be terrifically suspenseful.
Composer Matt Morton and sound designer Eric Milano are particular MVPs in this undertaking, though the sonic palette also gets a fun tweak when Miller and his team feature some of the songs that were on cassette tapes made for the Apollo 11 astronauts. Most notable is “Mother Country,” a stirring anthem from former Kingston Trio member John Stewart that plays during the re-entry scenes. (Of course, the song does undergo some judicious editing — removing the lines where the main character dies, for instance.)
In a restroom after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival, one twentysomething patron complained, “There’s no hook. Everything went smoothly.” The second half of that statement is true, more or less, but we’ll beg to differ on the first part. Men landed on the moon, walked on the moon and came home safely almost 50 years ago, and that gives “Apollo 11” a pretty damn big hook.