I was a teenager when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in the summer of 1969 and, like millions of people around the world, I will never forget that moment. I can only guess how this film will play to viewers who didn’t experience the glory years of NASA and America’s space program, but I can tell you that I marveled at the sights and sounds of Apollo 11 and choked up as it reached its conclusion. (Moreover, I didn’t need a title card to identify the first voice we hear, which recurs throughout the movie. Newscaster Walter Cronkite has become synonymous with mid-20th century events.)
Watching this saga on a giant IMAX screen plays a key role in its impact. NASA documented every facet of its operations, but only a fraction of their vast archive has ever been tapped. David Sington was one of the first filmmakers to dig deep and find previously unused material for his excellent feature In the Shadow of the Moon (2007). Apollo 11’s Todd Douglas Miller made an even more dramatic discovery: large-format 65mm footage that was never processed, unseen for fifty years. This material was destined to be shown in IMAX.
He also located thousands of hours of audio documenting communications between NASA personnel on the ground and the three astronauts who made this unprecedented journey: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins. With all of this at his command, Miller decided to forego traditional narration and rely on newsman Cronkite and the men of NASA to tell their own story, day by day, hour by hour. This gives the film an immediacy that carries us through the nine-day process of sending Americans to the moon and back. The use of countdown clocks onscreen adds a degree of suspense to each phase of the journey, while simple animation demonstrates the procedures the astronauts underwent. Every operation is clearly delineated so we understand what is happening from the moment they blast off to their splashdown and safe return in the Pacific Ocean. For such a lengthy operation the narrative moves at an unusually brisk pace.
I remember the frustration of not being able to see the capsule landing and the space travelers being fished out of the water. We may have had the technology to send them to the moon and back in 1969 but we didn’t yet have satellite TV transmission, so we had to make do with crackly telephone and radio descriptions of their rescue until film could be developed and aired.
Writer-director Miller presents all of this in matter-of-fact fashion. Matt Morton contributes a subtle music score, but there is no need for the filmmaker to impose drama on a story that literally speaks for itself. I started to become emotional as the film concluded, marveling at the enormity of what I’d just witnessed: an effort involving untold numbers of people who planned and executed it to perfection. Everything worked just as it was supposed to.
The moon landing was a unifying event for our country, the likes of which we haven’t seen again. If you want to have an uplifting experience—truly, and no pun intended—see Apollo 11 and be sure to see it in IMAX.