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'Apollo 11' review: Stellar documentary about the groundbreaking space mission

Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller crafted the film using original archival footage.

"Apollo 11" chronicles the 1969 moon landing.

 "Apollo 11" chronicles the 1969 moon landing. Photo Credit: Neon

'Apollo 11' 

Documentary directed by Todd Douglas Miller

Rated

“Apollo 11” is nothing short of a miracle, in which the filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller crafts a vast amount of unseen NASA footage surrounding the moon landing into a gripping thriller and tribute to American enterprise.

But it’s also more than that. It represents what documentary cinema about history can be at its very best: an effective and meaningful teaching tool that vividly renders iconic stories and figures anew, achieving a deeper understanding and appreciation of them.

Audiences are fortunate to be able to find two nonfiction movies that achieve this, in ways that seem to expand the possibilities of the medium, in theaters right now. “Apollo 11” joins Peter Jackson’s jaw-dropping “They Shall Not Grow Old” in this rare terrain.

While the latter movie utilizes cutting-edge filmmaking technology to colorize and enhance WWI footage, Miller goes straight to the source, assembling the existing footage of the Apollo 11 mission into a spectacle of majestic sweep and extraordinary emotional impact.

It’s crafted with masterful precision, with clocks counting down to the launch and other key events on the journey enhancing tension, and graphics clearly explaining the staggeringly complex science involved.

A wordless montage of home movies and other footage communicates the magnitude of the moment, introducing us to the back stories of astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, showing us their whole lives leading right to this.

There are no present-day interviews or other touches that might have detracted from the power of the archival scenes, and the decision to allow them to speak entirely for themselves gives the movie a raw immediacy that’s simply staggering to behold.

The images span the gamut of this monumental eight-day mission. There’s everything from wide shots of the crowds amassing for the launch, to images of the massive mission control efforts, behind-the-scenes footage of the astronauts preparing for the journey to the launchpad and a foreboding orbit around the dark side of the lunar surface.

They are captured with immaculate skill and purpose, with the camera operators innately aware of the importance of what they were depicting. The sweeping tilts and pans and other soaring movements portray an inspirational collective effort, creating an enhanced appreciation for the enormity of this accomplishment.

That epic scope communicates precisely what makes this movie so deeply moving: the story of the Moon landing is the story of the United States and, indeed, the world, united as one.

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