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Heaven's eleven
History is a vast presentation of subjective interpretation written in books. By the winners. In 1969, when mankind realised a potential it has now tragically discarded, words were joined by TV, 16mm, 35mm and 70mm film. Camus is stunned anew at APOLLO 11...
 
  "The director says that when working with archive imagery a filmmaker's tread must be the opposite of a lunar explorer's, having to learn 'to step away and not see the imprint', that the best editing can be none at all, 'just let the footage speak for itself. Landing on the moon. Usually in films it's cut to holy hell, and it's got all this sound design, and it's over-edited. To show that as an unbroken six-minute long shot... it gets me every time.'"
  Todd Douglas Miller on Apollo 11*

 

"Cut to holy hell." That's a telling phrase. I was once offered a job not to edit compelling stories or fashion strong narratives but to "up the cut rate" of older documentaries. It's not necessarily a cynical practise. I look back on my older work and quietly squirm while muttering under my breath "Cut! For God's sake, cut!" As a species, we are visually literate like no other evolved primate on Earth and not only are our attention spans getting shorter, I'm not going to be able to fini... See, you got there ahead of me. But then we have the power of celluloid, the full force of film, that rich, soft, wood grain beauty that has yet to be emulated digitally. NASA shot the holy hell, to borrow the phrase back, out of the first moon mission and that august institution was right to but not for a gawping twenty first century audience. It was mostly done to improve NASA's own work, to research and closely study rocket thrusts and evaluate equipment. Well. That's as may be but Todd Douglas Miller, the curator of this extraordinary treasure trove, has made something truly outstanding; a thrilling adventure narrative made up of thousands of hours of audio, film and TV recordings and edited together with exquisite restraint (by Miller himself). If nothing else, Apollo 11 proves that if you have the story, it can be told with decades old, well tested filmmaking craft.

The astronauts prepare in Apollo 11

The story of our first moon landing is compelling in itself without visual records. Three men, three of the best the US could find, squeezed themselves into a tin can fifty years ago and travelled 384,400 kilometres through space to land on the moon and then come back home. Safely. With visual records, it's by far the most satisfying and stunning account of the journey and visually it is breathtaking. It took us back to a time of slide rulers, nuts and bolts and smoking indoors. Split screen ups the drama as the thousands of hours of audio is carefully cherry picked for the moments of highest suspense. There is even some sound that synchronised with the mutely shot pictures, which must have been a bonus for Miller. All visual capture techniques are in evidence here and it's a small miracle that none of the dramatic moments are without some visual representation. Yes, Miller is a filmmaker so he will use the best material to tell the best story and if there's a shot or two in the film from a later Apollo mission, should we care? Not one bit. As the low register sound effect rumbles over black towards the first shot, my friend next to me said "I know what that is!" The Saturn V rocket had to be moved into position by something Gerry Anderson would have been proud to design. This colossal rocket carrier, by my estimation, was travelling about a metre a second. I find it such a delicious idea that the cargo of such a slow moving beast was designed to travel at 11,265 metres a second – that's shifting it. Imagine travelling seven miles per second...

The endless electronic beeps that herald or terminate radio conversations are more evocative than ever. As an eight year-old boy, I was captivated with their promise of the future, that wild, globally peaceful place where I'd drop in on a friend via hover pack or anti-gravity scooter. By 2001, we'd be holidaying in orbiting luxury space stations and Mars package tours would be passé. No. Once a society does something truly miraculous - and have no doubt, putting a man on the moon in 1969 seems in hindsight a suicidal undertaking, with an emphasis on the undertaking – then a repeat of that miracle (my God, rather like a movie sequel) dents the original and automatically devalues the repeat. As astronaut Buzz Aldrin (Neil's co-moon walker) said in his Simpsons' appearance "Second comes right after first!" which is a comic line almost too perfect to be true. How the producers got him to deliver that line, Jesus. US astronauts landed on the moon six times and which mission does everyone remember apart from the first? Yeah, that's the one... "Houston, we have a problem..." From the movie, the drama of Apollo 13 is way more famous than the other five actual landings. That should tell you a lot about homo sapiens – us. The fact the public got bored with the moon landings almost makes me weep and as public enthusiasm waned so did the coffers. As astronaut Gus Grissom states in The Right Stuff, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers..." To those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Rogers, think swashbuckling astronaut adventurer created in 1928 six years before Flash Gordon.

So our future is defiantly not 'futuristic'. We have to deal with idiots, despots and demagogues, Brexit, Trump and airports in the 18th century (you cannot make this shit up). So I will say that you may want to give in to the spell this movie casts. It's one thing to make a documentary, it's another to make history come gloriously alive. When you see a full resolution Hasselblad photograph of the lunar surface, you sort of start humming "Pack up your troubles..." We define ourselves by our achievements and I cannot stress how important I think this kind of record for this kind of achievement actually is. Today is troubling, yesterday less so. Today there are too many calls on all our time, lives to live, experiences to savour. Let this be one. The Apollo 11 mission stands as a high point of human achievement. We need benchmarks in our broader lives now and fewer 'likes' and selfish dopamine hits. Let's look at the much bigger picture and what we can do when we collectively set our minds to a challenge.

 


* https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/todd-douglas-miller-apollo-11-archive-documentary

Apollo 11 poster
Apollo 11

USA 2019
93 mins
directed by
Todd Douglas Miller
produced by
Evan Krauss
Todd Douglas Miller
Thomas Petersen
cinematography
Adam Holender
editing
Todd Douglas Miller
music
Matt Morton
starring
Buzz Aldrin
Neil Armstrong
Michael Collins
Janet Armstrong
Johnny Carson
Walter Cronkite
Jim Lovell

UK distributor
Dogwoof Pictures
UK release date
28 June 2019
review posted
8 July 2019

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