Ostensibly put together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, where the US won the space race by landing on the moon, this thrilling new collage documentary needs no such excuse to exist when it’s using footage this good. Director Todd Douglas Miller assembles the material without voice-over, talking heads or reconstruction, resulting in a documentary that not only depicts the event without gloss or the glow of nostalgia, but questions the limits of human achievement and the limits of cinema.
The half-century-old film has been restored and treated, putting Damien Chazelle’s timid use of 16mm on First Man to shame. Where that was a movie about interiority, using a singular perspective as a way of travelling through space, here the holistic, playful trip through the archives provides a sensory overview of the incident. The 16mm footage has such vivid colours that the entire mission begins to feel like science fiction; one shot of the rocket at night lit by floodlights seems to isolate it in the universe. The next morning, a helicopter shot takes in thousands of people camping in Houston to get a glimpse of takeoff. Even Johnny Carson is there, taking it all in.
When the Apollo 11 makes it to space, the feature becomes more spacious, the footage more challenging. The surface of the moon is so burbling, so infinite and mysterious that it could be a shot from a Brakhage film. These sequences, shot from the inside of the lunar module, take on a durational effect. As the astronauts gawp at each rotation they take around the moon, seeing Earth from a distance, the vastness of the mission really begins to take shape for the audience. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins begin to feel like aliens, such is the historical vantage point that we as spectators take. By the end, there’s the greatest Richard Nixon cameo since Black Dynamite, as Tricky Dick phones the boys on the moon to congratulate them and spin a tale of American exceptionalism to the world. Miller dropping in this reminder of the political wrangling that led to the moon is a cunning device to bring us back down to earth.
According to popular conspiracy theory, Kubrick staged the moon landings. But if that’s true, then he also pulled off one of the greatest feats of theatre ever accomplished.
Apollo 11 is released nationwide on 28th June 2019.
Watch the trailer for Apollo 11 here: