This was playing at my favorite farm-to-table movie theater on the lake for ages and I didn’t go see it and I cannot believe I did that to myself. Granted, if I had seen it on a big screen with surround sound I might have fully broke down, and I wouldn’t want Jordan to have to do something about this woman on the floor. As is, I cried four times, breathed a stunned “Oh my god” at twice as many moments, and spent maybe a quarter of the runtime with my knuckles pressed to my open mouth. By the end of it I had to consciously try to relax the muscles in my forehead from where they’d kept my eyebrows steepled in dazzled wonder for so long.
What is this that so emotionally tackled me? Just a very straightforward documentary of the moon landing! But I think it’s in the straightforwardness that it gets so much of its power. Apollo 11 is almost radically chronological and unadorned, zero modern framing or talking heads, composed entirely of period footage & audio from July 1969, only occasionally supplemented with very, very simple moving diagrams of the rocket’s trajectory in space. These are always black with thin white lines and the barest of labels, if any. What text appears on screen, to name people and places or check in on a countdown to an event, is invariably white, regardless of what it is superimposed on, in a san-serif font as small and lightweight as an aesthetic blog. This is something I am sure was optimized for big movie theater screens, but even though I could only read it half the time, I loved the choice. It was so minimal and unobtrusive and clean, befitting the calm, steady progression of the edit.
Every choice the filmmakers made works to create something that is almost serenely uncluttered, allowing the astonishing footage to just glow across time and outer-space, as we listen to NASA and the three astronauts talk to each other. They are scientists—what they say is frequently remarkably composed and orderly (the aesthetic again! befitting of the content!), with those occasional moments of strange, heart-clenching poetry that have since become famous. Neil Armstrong dubbing the spot on the Moon where they landed safely Tranquility Base. Aldrin’s line from the lunar surface describing its “Magnificent desolation.” A scientist quietly naming in a flow of directions to these travelers, “Mother Earth.”
This movie is a lesson in how great the impact can be of showing instead of telling. We don’t need to be told that they did all this without modern computing power, because we see the rows and rows and rows of men at desks in Houston. And we don’t need to be told that those men were indeed mostly men on the whole, mostly white, because again, there they are. We don’t need an historian or social scholar to explain to us the political importance of this mission, we can simply drop in on a news program on the radio taking a break from the Americans up in space to mention the Vietnam War still waging on that week, Senator Ted Kennedy’s vehicular homicide on Chappaquiddick… We don’t need to be told of Apollo 11’s mixed mission of discovery and propaganda, we hear it in the tone of President Kennedy’s call to space from the Oval Office, and his speech to the world after.
And we don’t need to be told that what that team achieved was, in every sense of the word, world-changing. Through the cerebral yet immediate way these events are composed onscreen, we experience ourselves the beauty of calculations so rigorously checked that the commands being executed feel like magic—as well as that freezing danger right before they go through, where it seems perhaps this gossamer thread of safety will at last snap and the astronauts be swallowed up. We feel a sense of the continuity of human exploration stretching back through the many types of ships we’ve sailed to new places, simply through nautical miles being called out to mark how many hundreds of thousands of them the astronauts are from their home port. And we feel the worry and hope and wonder of all the people gathered on the beaches, eyes trained up on the sky, just as we watch it play out again today.