We’ve all seen the images. The big ones this film puts onscreen, even some of the ones it kinda deliberately tries to edit around in favour of different angles on the same material. Which is kinda wild by the way, they’re on the fucking moon and they set up multiple angles. We know more or less the story of the moon landing, that it happened, what was involved — the work and all. I guess we keep returning to this image of NASA as like part of the great and good America, a part that was lost, a part that was personal, and a part that could do with being rediscovered.
We’ve covered all those in the past few years’ releases: Hidden Figures, First Man, The Martian. To talk about the space program is also to talk about what it means to be American, and often more interestingly what it means to be patriotic. The Martian is a film where Matt Damon says the line ‘science the shit outta this.’ (funniest film of 2015 apparently) and, like the book, finds valour in the tech-bro, facts-and-logic type mindset of that type of asshole. Have we come far enough to admit that Hidden Figures is mostly facile lib propaganda? I hope so.
Apollo 11 finds its reason in spectacle. Remastered footage, 70mm, see it in theatres, it’s all a good pitch, especially to a world that’s starting to once again see the appeal of spectacle cinema. The take is to take all the material and package it not as recontextualisation or reframing but experience. First Man tried this too and I should definitely return to it, the overwhelming scope and magnitude drilled down into the personal reality of the man at its centre.
The same instinct drives in the opposite direction here, what does it mean to be present? What does it mean to witness? National pride is national pride and the honour of experiencing the moon landing was one shared by the world. Can it, by proxy, now become yours too?
With the exception of a literal handful of explanatory diagrams, the footage (and literally all of the audio), is taken from contemporary sources. We open on the rocket being carted out to the launch platform and close on the astronauts release from quarantine. We are introduced to the crowds onlooking Kennedy Space Centre and the launch site, invited to take our place among them.
It is the one part of the operation that feels truly like a public event. Swiftly after that we are ushered into the clean rooms of Mission Control and everything gets a lot more hushed. Matt Morton’s score becomes the lead emotive and storytelling tool as we get enveloped in this mire of fuzzily recorded radio transmissions and harried looking men sitting at their big computers. Like, I can get why folks think the whole thing faked, every single production design decision is the most aesthetic thing imaginable.
It’s here the strain kinda shows, becoming reliant on split screen and (given that we’re now hearing a lot more live voices) editing that feels like the material’s been wrestled into following the flow of the narrative. But also, you know what? I mostly didn’t really care. There were a few like ‘oof’ moments, but like, these folks went to the fucking moon! And they filmed it! Like you can actually watch this shit!
It’s the perfect, beautiful idea that’s at the core of one of the worst found footage movies ever made (Apollo 18) except it’s actually real. And seeing a static unbroken shot from the underside of the lander on its five minute descent to the surface is nerve racking and excruciating.
Some parent had come along with their kid along to the screening (it was real cute, they sat by me and kept a whispering conversation about what the astronauts were doing and why). On the way out I could hear them arguing over whether ‘all of it was real’ and got more sympathy for that perspective right then than I’d ever had before. This film directly confronts you with it, a realness so great and incomprehensible that maybe mythologisation, interpretation, is the only way to reckon with it.
The film gets this, it does so itself in the final moments. Richard Nixon’s presence is sidelined throughout and after the climactic return it is a flashback to Kennedy’s address that brings us to the close. Maybe Apollo 11, the mission not the film, was an attempt to create an image of this America there never was. The culmination of an idea from a murdered man, used as some symbolic political victory.
Perhaps it’s right that it should be all ours. And Todd Douglas Miller has made a fine canvas for us to project our dreams on.
Apollo 11 is currently screening in select cinemas across the UK.
Image courtesy of Dogwoof