For those who grew up on “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” it might be difficult to imagine the enormity of the Apollo 11 mission. But a few movies and TV programs are attempting to take us back to those heady days when the US won the race to reach the moon.
Following in the wake of the Oscar-winning biopic “First Man,” about astronaut Neil Armstrong, the must-see documentary “Apollo 11” uses archival footage in a way that serves as a good lead-in for the July PBS “American Experience” special six-hour film, “Chasing the Moon.” Both are essential parts of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing.
In 1969, NASA was on a tight schedule. Apollo 9 was launched to test the lunar module in March and safely returned. Apollo 10 was launched in May and flew to within 15,400 miles of the moon’s surface. On July 16, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins were launched into space on Apollo 11 for an eight-day, three-hour mission that changed the world.
In a phone interview, director Todd Douglas Miller relates that he was “negative 7” during the Apollo 11 mission. Born in Columbus, Ohio, he grew up in the age of the shuttle, attending third grade when the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger ended with the death of all seven crew members.
The Apollo missions were a remnant of presidential Camelot. In a May 25, 1961 address to Congress, President John F. Kennedy proposed the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth by the end of the decade. However, the Apollo missions began with a disaster. The 1967 Apollo 1 never flew after a cabin fire killed all three crew members.
A native of the Buckeye state, Miller explains he was made aware of the Ohio-born Neil Armstrong and John Glenn, yet only had a casual interest in space while growing up. When his company began going through the NASA and National Archives to re-scan and digitize 16 and 35 mm film related to the Apollo 11 mission, this documentary coalesced because they had what he calls the “surprise of the century for us or at least the last 50 years,” with the research team finding large format film that had been untouched.
The digitization of that footage involved three years of intensive work that was anxiety-driven because the rare film had to be transported out of Washington, DC and up to Miller’s facilities in New York. While Miller confesses that “I didn’t sleep until it was back in cold storage,” he got more help along the way.
For instance, an obsessive Apollo 11 fan named Stephen Slater had been lip synching mission control footage to the recorded audio. As people in the space community “caught wind of our project and started giving us materials,” the task then became winnowing down the materials to a 90-minute final film. Some of the extra footage will be made available later.
The film is divided up into days and while we don’t get much information about the families, Miller flashes quick montages to give us a sense of who these three men were, at least in the eyes of the public. The documentary has unexpected delights.
We get a glimpse of JoAnn Morgan, the first female engineer at NASA in the first firing room. We also see Frances “Poppy” Northcutt, a Texas attorney who was the first female engineer to work in NASA’s Mission Control during the Apollo Program. While she’s not highlighted in this documentary, she is extensively interviewed in the upcoming PBS special, “Chasing the Moon.”
You’ll also see faces of color, including an African-American man who analyzed the daily radiation levels of the astronauts. Simple white outlines on a black background help explain the mechanics of the mission.
Miller says these illustrations were inspired by similar cel animation in a 1970 documentary, “Moonwalk One.” “I decided that if the tech guys love it and my mother loves it, this is definitely the way to go,” says Miller.
Miller thought writer-director Damien Chazelle did a fantastic job on “First Man,” and he used many of the same technical advisers. If you were one of those who groused about the lack of flag-planting in “First Man,” don’t worry. You’ll see it in this documentary.
Miller recommends seeing “Apollo 11” in IMAX, but if you miss the special one-week run in IMAX beginning Friday, March 1, you can still see it on the big screen starting March 8, when the film widens to regular screenings. You’ll also get a second chance in July when this movie will be re-released, along with other moon landing and space-related events celebrating the 50th anniversary.