Where were you when Neil Armstrong left that first, famous footprint on the Moon? It’s a question that need not concern a good number of readers as it’s been precisely 50 years since the lunar landing. I was around, but too young to appreciate the momentous nature of the event. My class was herded into the TV room at school where we endured a couple of hours of excruciating boredom, watching the astronauts on a fuzzy black-and-white screen.
Todd Douglas Miller has made a documentary that reawakened those memories of prepubescent boredom while adding a new set of thrills as he traces the Apollo 11 mission from launch day at Cape Canaveral to the crew’s triumphant return home.
The entire 93 minutes consists of archival footage gleaned from NASA and other sources. There is no narrative voiceover, no ‘where-are-they-now?’ scenes, no whizzbang CGI additions. The story is told in fragments by the voice of legendary TV newsreader, Walter Cronkite, whose nightly commentaries on the mission are overlaid on previously unseen images.
A vague feeling of suspense is generated by timers ticking down the minutes and seconds to the launch. We know it will be a success but it’s impossible not to feel the pervasive anxiety as we watch preparations involving a room full of scientists and technicians sitting at consoles, twirling buttons and flicking switches.
To do what Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins did, was an insanely brave act. So many things had to come together perfectly, so many things could have gone wrong. It wasn’t just the complexity of building a rocket to take the astronauts out of Earth’s atmosphere, it was the precise timing required to jettison redundant parts of the craft, to arrive at the preplanned destination, and later to re-establish contact with the lunar module.
The 70 mm footage has been restored and digitised but still resembles a grainy home movie. When one thinks of the advances in materials, computer technology and design that have taken place over the past 50 years, everything in the 1960s appears old-fashioned and cumbersome. Today those hundreds of consoles, all looking like ham radio sets, would be replaced by powerful computer screens. Even the lunar module, with its insect legs and flapping sheets of gold foil, looks like something put together in a backyard shed using whatever materials were available. In place of feet it has four shallow basins that resemble woks. It’s a far cry from the streamlined fantasies of science fiction.
As time ticks on towards the launch Miller cuts back and forth from the NASA control rooms to the astronauts going through their final drills, to thousands of people lined up on the Florida foreshores who have come for a first-hand glimpse.
When the crew are safely in orbit we get the money shot of the Earth seen from space through the portal of the capsule. Inside it’s horribly cramped, no better than the claustrophobic quarters the old mariners endured when they set out on their voyages of exploration. Inevitably one starts wondering about how the crew fed themselves, how they went to the toilet, how they managed to sleep. I dread to think what the coffee was like.
The Moon landing is weirdly exciting, although we already know it will go like a charm. When Neil Armstrong finally sets foot on the surface, at 20:17, July 20, we wait expectantly for the big line: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Today he would have to say “humanity” rather than “man”, or be deemed a sexist. In fact it’s unlikely that a mission with three white men would be acceptable in the eyes of the general public.
As Armstrong and Aldwin waddle among the craters we are conscious that Michael Collins, alone in orbit, is experiencing the most profound solitude any human being has ever experienced. Earth still seems a long way away when the module successfully docks with the command vessel and the crew sets sail for home.
When we’re not listening to Walter Cronkite, or to scratchy voices over radio transmitters, Matt Morton’s soundtrack draws on those Moog synthesizer sounds that bands such as Tangerine Dream were emitting in the early 1970s. The only exception is a sudden burst of the patriotic anthem, Mother Country, by folk singer, John Stewart, which the crew listen to on a cassette player. Stewart is best known for writing Daydream Believerfor the Monkees – which might have been a more interesting choice.
To properly enjoy Apollo 11 it would be best to ignore some of the hype surrounding the film. I’ve heard and read such raves that I fear viewers will go along thinking they’re about to see the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise. In reality the movie presents a subdued, methodical account of events with which we are already familiar. It’s the historic nature of those events that plays on our minds; while Miller’s patient build-up keeps us – if not on the edge of our seats – at least feeling a little twitchy.
Perhaps the most engrossing part of the fim is the effort required to put ourselves in the astronauts’ space boots. It may sound like an adventure – to plunge into the void, to stand on a dusty lunar landscape and return to Earth like a blazing comet, but it could only have been achieved by men with nerves of steel and limited imagination.
Written & directed by Todd Douglas Miller
Starring Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins
USA, rated G, 93 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 July, 2019