Film Review: ‘Apollo 11’ Illuminates With Fast Pacing and Suspense

Our fascination with space never ends. Even 50 years later, we are still acquiring new footage from the historic 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. Neon’s latest film, “Apollo 11” uses recently unearthed 70mm archival footage to construct a rich portrait of this incredible mission. Stripped of narration, interviews or any of the other traditional documentary trappings, “Apollo 11” lets the footage speak for itself. Especially in IMAX, the film looks gorgeous. However, it’s not enough to just look good. The film also moves along at a brisk pace. It packs all the suspense, fascination and glory of the Apollo 11 mission into a tidy 93-minute running time.

Everyone knows the headlines. The Apollo 11 mission sent the first astronauts to space with the mission to land on the moon. Astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins spent 8 days on the mission, which proved successful. The men landed on the moon, planting an American flag in an iconic shot that was broadcast around the world. All the while, Americans found themselves glued to TV watching up to the minute reports of the mission.

Director Todd Douglas Miller has assembled a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking. The movie moves swiftly while still giving us all the granular details of the mission. We jump from space to mission control with ease, bound by the methods of communication between them. It’s interesting to see the tight containment of the spacecraft contrasted with the open, nervous smoking of the men in Houston. Miller, who also edited the film, manages to balance these shifts while always keeping the film moving forward. His editing is an impressive feat that netted him a Special Jury Award for Editing at Sundance this past year.

What also makes the space scenes so thrilling are the accompanying moments of explaining the intricate procedures of the mission. Diagrams show us the precise moments the astronauts would have to engage the thrusters, dock or undock the lunar module, or go into blackout mode when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. These really helped conceptualize the stakes, danger and moment by moment tasks throughout the film. Certain key scenes also had readouts of altitude, velocity or fuel, which only further heightened one’s knowledge and enjoyment of the film. Choices like this made the film both more precise and more accessible.

Though trapped in the spaceship looking at various number readouts through most of the film, the movie is grander than just the voyage. The film’s minute focus on the mission at large, rather than players, provides a more sweeping look at why the space race captured a generation. Early on, we’re treated to wonderful vintage shots of crowds camped out at Cape Canaveral getting ready to watch the takeoff. Later, we see crowds of people gathered to watch the actual footage from the moon. Yes, it’s thrilling to watch the first voyage to space and see newfound footage of the moon. However, it’s almost more interesting and indicative to have an eye on the nation and their endless fascination with this exploration.

It’s hard, almost unfair, to compare the archival footage based “Apollo 11” against Damien Chazelle’s narrative “First Man” from last year. In fact, no matter your thoughts of Chazelle’ film, “Apollo 11” acts as a strong companion piece. For those who loved the film, “Apollo 11” provides greater detail and up-to-the-minute updates on the central mission at hand. On the other hand, it also provides something very different for people, like me, who were underwhelmed by “First Man.” What if the story wasn’t about the astronauts? Instead, the story becomes our collective desire and fascination with space travel. “Apollo 11” doesn’t just take us to the moon, it transports us to 1969 and greater contextualizes the national fascination and hunger for exploration.

“Apollo 11” is distributed by Neon Films and opens in IMAX on Friday, March 1st. It expands into wide release on Friday, March 8th.

GRADE: (★★★1/2)

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