4 Sep 2019

Movie review - Apollo 11

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 4 September 2019

Apollo 11 remembers a time of bravery and modesty when the first human safely landed on the moon.

If you want to know why everyone on Earth walked a little taller, and felt a little braver and better on 20 July 1969, watch this spectacular documentary, says Simon Morris.

Simon Morris: The crystal-clear film footage in Apollo 11 looks like it was filmed last week, not 50 years ago.

And comparing it with coverage of the event that happened in the United States a mere three weeks later – the Woodstock music festival – it's as if they were happening on different planets.

Of course, in one way, they were.

The opening shot of Apollo 11 is a stunner – showing the arrival of the huge launching pad for the lunar rocket, brought in on the back of an even bigger transporter.

Across the way from what was then known as Cape Kennedy are hundreds of eager sightseers, often bringing the kids along to witness history in the making.

It looks like a Republican convention – very tidy, very white, rather male-led, lots of crew cuts…

Echoing the dress standards on Apollo 11 itself, I suppose – the three astronauts Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and, leading the group, Neil Armstrong.

The amount of footage available to the makers of the documentary, led by director Todd Douglas Miller, is astonishing. If it happened, someone was shooting it.

But almost as impressive is the intelligence and taste used in the compilation of Apollo 11.

For instance, the first decision was the correct one – to simply cover the event from when the three astronauts suit up and head to the rocket, to the moment when the mission concludes in Hawaii four days later.

Importantly, the events are covered as they happen. There's almost no background information, just as there's no after-the-event commentary by the participants – either the Apollo 11 astronauts or Mission Control in Houston.

It was Apollo 11 as experienced by first, America, and then, the whole world. The only reason there was any difference between the two was the technology of the time.

Back home, the coverage was pretty much live pretty much the entire duration.

This may explain a certain formality between the three men of the crew and the hundreds of people supporting then from Houston - and I suppose the millions supporting them everywhere else.

But maybe not. Everyone that week knew they were on their best behaviour.

They weren't just representing themselves – or even America, though occasionally the American astronauts, made up of men from a military background, could be forgiven for forgetting that.

No, they were representing us all – not just in July 1969, but mankind for all time. So, no pressure, Neil Armstrong. No wonder he fudged his line on the day.

It's worth noting what's missing as well as what's present if you want to be wise 50 years after the event.

Fellow space-racer Russia is mentioned just once in Apollo 11. You'll see very few female faces and even fewer people of colour.

I counted just one black gentleman, and it was hard not to be reminded of Gil Scott-Heron's sarcastic poem Whitey on the Moon, comparing how much was spent on this mission and how much went on the poor and hungry closer to home.

But that was very much for the day after. If you want to know why everyone on Earth walked a little taller, and felt a little braver and better on July 20, 1969, look at Apollo 11.

They don't make giant leaps like this anymore, and we're all the poorer for it.