Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 16, 2019)
50 years after Americans first set foot on the Moon, a fresh look at the subject comes via the 2019 documentary Apollo 11. This program starts on July 16, 1969, in the lead-up to the launch of the mission to the Moon.
From there 11 traces the events in chronological order. This takes the tale through the astronaut’s return to Earth about a week later.
No modern narration accompanies the footage. Instead, we get circa 1969 comments from newscaster Walter Cronkite as well as mission commander Neil Armstrong, command module pilot Michael Collins, and lunar module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.
While those notes occasionally appear, most of the speech heard during 11 consists of interactions between NASA and the astronauts.
Everyone loves an anniversary, though I don’t recall a ton of Apollo 11 media on the mission’s 25th in 1994. With this documentary, 2018’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man and other efforts, it feels like the 50th anniversary has gotten a much bigger push than past commemorative moments.
In the case of 11, the big attraction comes from the footage itself. The film uses some 16mm film and video footage for elements in space, but its main appeal comes from the 65mm material that comprises much of its running time.
All involved describe this large format film as “newly discovered”, which then begs the question how such amazing material could sit forgotten in the vaults for nearly five decades. This isn’t some short reel of Super 8 footage, so the photography clearly acted as a major endeavor, one you’d think would’ve been explored well before 2019.
Whatever the case may be, when 11 works, it does so due to the amazing quality of the footage involved. We get an excellent inside view of the events in the most attractive way imaginable, as the film often looks stunning.
Those elements become enough to sustain the viewer across 93 minutes, and the occasional interview comments add a little perspective. However, 11 usually prefers the “you are there” approach, so the interactions between the astronauts and the NASA staff fill most of the movie.
This becomes a mixed bag. On the positive side, I like the immediacy this approach brings, as it places us in the participants’ shoes fairly effectively.
On the negative side, though, 11 can feel a little stagnant without the perspective additional comments would add. Unlike Apollo 13 the following year, the first Moon landing went off without many hitches.
As such, 11 brings us a visual feast with an appealing sense of wonder but not much drama. One can’t help but wish similar footage existed of the Apollo 13 mission, as it’d be fascinating to get the same treatment for that more perilous endeavor.
The decision to omit reflective interviews becomes a drawback because that perspective would contribute needed emotional heft. If 11 gave us insights into what the participants thought and felt during the mission, this would make the end product more dynamic.
Count that as a mostly minor criticism, though, as the visual appeal of Apollo 11 ultimately overrules any complaints. While it doesn’t become the most dramatic documentary you’ll see, the amazing quality of the material it presents more than compensates.