On July 20, 1969, a spindly-looking craft set down on the surface of the Moon. Inside were two astronauts from the United States, Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, taking the voyage that had been dreamed of since the first human looked into the sky and saw a face (or what we’ve interpreted as a face) staring back at him. It was a mission first suggested to the American people by a president that would not live to see it succeed. While the real goal of Apollo was to beat the Russians to the Moon, what it became was a rallying point for Americans at a time when the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights was tearing the country apart at the seams. The mission that lasted just over eight days, captivated the imagination of not only the United States, but the world and is chronicled in an amazing documentary titled simply “Apollo 11.”
The film has no narrator and uses the communications to and from Mission Control and newscasts of the time to tell the story. It is a smart choice to use NASA’s archival audio and video footage instead of recreations as there’s something cheap looking when actual events, especially ones that are documented as thoroughly as Apollo 11, have sets and actors employed to reenact events. A recent documentary series about the space program on NatGeo is filled with recreations and I had to turn it off after 10 minutes as it bored me. “Apollo 11” is far from boring.
The film puts up a countdown clock to important events, such as the launch and the ignition of the third stage breaking the astronauts out of Earth orbit and sending them to the moon. Despite these events being 50 years old and, spoiler alert, everything works out just fine, the countdown and a score that adds tension to these moments that are well known, adds building pressure as the clock moves to zero. It is a brilliant idea to increase the excitement of these events that were exciting and scary enough if they were experienced in real time.
Much of the technology, including the lunar lander and its ascent stage, were largely untested. The computers that would guide Armstrong and Aldrin to their landing sight were rudimentary at best and, as the astronauts approached the Moon’s surface, easily overwhelmed. Recent interviews with NASA officials that were there at the time, believed the chances of success were 50-50. While there had been numerous space flights putting men in Earth orbit and two manned flights orbiting the Moon, landing was an infinitely more complicated endeavor. The film is a testament to the technological advancement, dedication and bravery of everyone involved in getting the astronauts to the Moon and back again.
As a seven-year-old child, I remember watching the poor quality black and white TV images as Armstrong stepped off the ladder of the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) and made history. While I knew what I was seeing was a big deal (I was a huge follower of the space program), it is only as I got older and learned more that I began to realize just how amazing seeing those images was. “Apollo 11” is a much needed reminder that we can do good and important things if we focus our thought, talents and treasure on a goal with no expectation of financial gain. Many earned a profit from our exploration of the Moon, but it wasn’t a requirement. That is the attitude we need if we are going to continue to make strides in space and on the ground. In other words, we’re screwed.
“Apollo 11” gets five stars.
This week, I’ll be reviewing “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” for WIMZ.com. (Warning: Trailer may contain NSFW language)
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