Progress — scientific, technological, evolutionary — works, more or less, in a straight line. The Industrial Revolution happened, and that gave birth to the 20th century. The Wright Brothers happened, and not too long after that we had an airline industry. On July 20, 1969, we landed, and then walked, on the lunar surface, and then…well, in the case of this most spectacular of technological adventures, not so much happened after that. No moon colony. No discovery of life on Mars. No science-fiction movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” coming to life by the year 2001 (though we do now have video phones!).
I exaggerate (a bit). The visionary ingenuity of the space program gave rise to oodles of the technology that is now burned into the fabric of our lives. And as far as space travel is concerned…who knows? Who knows when, in the distant future, man’s attempt to visit the moon will somehow “pay off,” in ways that we never expected or even dreamed of?
Nevertheless, the first moon landing, and Neil Armstrong’s legendary walk six hours later, were experienced at the time in a way that’s fundamentally different from how we experience them today. From the moment that JFK made his famous exhortation in 1961 (“We choose to go to the moon”), the lunar landing was conceived to be the space-age version of the Wright Brothers’ historic first flight: the opening of a door, the gateway to a new epoch. But what we can now declare with certainty, 50 years later, is that the door we expected to open did not open. The things we thought might happen didn’t happen. In hindsight, it was less a beginning than an ending.
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“Apollo 11” is a cool, meticulous, at times enthralling documentary that captures the Apollo 11 flight in its entirety through raw footage drawn from the NASA vaults. Some of the footage is 70mm and quite spectacular; just about all the footage has never been seen before. We witness the hours before the launch, the surging cataclysm of the liftoff, the flight into space, the orbiting of the moon, the landing of the lunar module, Armstrong on the moon, Buzz Aldrin on the moon, the relaunch from the moon’s surface, the return flight, the re-entry into the atmosphere and the splashdown, all accompanied by the watchful natterings of mission-control analysts.
For those too young to have experienced the moon landing when it took place (i.e., anyone under 50), “Apollo 11” could prove to be an eye-opening adventure. I suspect, though, that the film’s appeal will mostly be limited to those who lived through the events. We’ve seen it before, of course, but not from these angles, now with this breadth and intimacy.
Directed and edited by Todd Douglas Miller, “Apollo 11” has no narration, no talking heads, and so for 93 flash-cut minutes we’re simply gazing at these marvelous and inexplicable images of things that happened long ago. There’s a fantastic design to it, of course; the machines are like a heavy-duty form of magic, and the voyage comes off like clockwork. But what the images channel is the wonder of the unprecedented.
Here are the crowds at Cape Canaveral, looking like extras from Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” gathered for the ultimate tailgate-party event. Here’s the voice of Walter Cronkite, still holding America together. Here’s the liftoff, a surreal apocalypse of debris and fire. Here’s the earth viewed from the space capsule — a spooky crystal marble that melts into a blobby orb. (You look at it and think: Is that really…us?) Here’s the lunar surface glimpsed from the orbiting module: cold and gray and a tad ceramic, like an ominous stretching piece of sculpture. And at every moment, here’s the not-so-buried anxiety that something could go amiss.
That said, the fascination of “Apollo 11” as a documentary has more to do with how different the moon landing looks today from how it looked back then. Scientifically, it was a fearless leap forward, and nothing short of a heroic one. But the way it was presented to the public, we thought we were witnessing the first act of a man-in-space revolution. And that vast metamorphosis never took place. In “Apollo 11,” the moon shot now literally looks like a one-shot — a dream made real.
The fact that the moon landing, as we see it today, served no transcendent purpose beyond itself is now an intrinsic element of the poetry of it. We did it because…we did it. Like climbing a mountain. The mountain is there, and the moon was there. So we built a glorious machine and hurtled 238,900 miles into the air to go check it out. Mankind was as eager and bold and innocent in that voyage as we have ever been. The not knowing — what we were doing, why we were doing it, where it would lead — may, in fact, have been the essence of the journey.
Does the documentary shed light on whether Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” got it right? Or wrong? I would say very much the former. There’s a tactile grittiness to the images that undergirds the hypnotic sensual accuracy of Chazelle’s vision. Yet even as a die-hard “First Man” believer, I have to say this. “Apollo 11” offers a sidelong portrait of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, and while Ryan Gosling’s clean-cut, clear-eyed terseness matches up neatly with Neil Armstrong’s, the documentary confirms what I’d always remembered: that Armstrong’s face was frequently graced with the angelic hint of a smile — he was the Eagle Scout as Mona Lisa. Maybe he was just that way for the cameras, but I somehow doubt it. In “Apollo 11,” he comes off as genial and inviting, the very soul of a more optimistic America. I think if he’d come off that way a bit more in “First Man,” the movie might have won more fans. And it might, in its way, have come even closer to capturing one of the primal appeals of the space program: that it seemed to be sending the boys next door rocketing out of this world.