Film Review: Apollo 11

SPOILER ALERT: They landed on the moon.

The film Apollo 11 is simply footage tied together with lots of audio recorded at the time and now made available – of one of the most famously recorded pieces of history.  (If you speak to children in their fifties, many of them will have been kept up late, way past their bedtime to view the event, live, on TV, by grownups insisting that this was terribly important).  So we all know how it ended.

What does this ‘new’ film offer?

It is direct cinema – an immersive experience, with only basic explanation of what is going on directly from the participants, and not commentary.  Lots of science comments, shots of banks of computer and men looking knowledgeable, and much recorded audio of real life comments between ground control and the men flying a quarter of a million nautical miles above them – and most of it is unintelligible. The crackle and distance involved affect clarity, and of course there is lots of use of science jargon – this is an important job being done and the cameras are tolerated to record it, but not get in the way.

I’ve been interested in the Space Programme – I’ve watched “Hidden Figures”, “The First Man” and documentaries about the early test pilots trying to become astronauts.  I’ve read a book on it some years ago.  I’ve watched a TV documentary about the Russian/American

Photo: NASA

 space race.  So what did this film offer?

  • the thundering seat of your pants roar as the rocket took off
  • big screen, big sound
  • the scale of the mission – that it was for 9 days
  • the amount of people involved
  • the shock that while the astronauts were being loaded at the top of the rocket, mechanics were fixing a problem with a leaking valve in the middle
  • the sheer elegance of the way the women dressed at the takeoff (most of it is back in fashion, now)
  • a tremendous music score (by Matt Morton) which didn’t get in the way
  • the sense of society at the time – there is a radio bulletin about how Ted Kennedy (JFK’s brother is being challenged for not saving the life of his passenger at Chappaquidick, a report that the war is going well in Vietnam.  Two screen shots, one of a woman in a huge room full of men, one a black guy involved in technology – which makes you realise the overwhelming proportion of white males in the science positions

Does the film have a weakness?

  • It lacks tension and clarity.
  • It lacks tension because you KNOW that the mission went well, worked out, that the astronauts made it home.
  • It lacks clarity because it missed out on coherence.  It would be brilliant to have added subtitles while there is audio communication across crackly lines.
  • It’s good to see what goes on, and lose yourself in the action – but a DVD with extra commentary, explanation and context would considerably add to understanding what went on – and what so nearly went wrong at various points.  Plus, recordings of the astronauts talking about their experience, the main Flight controllers, the astronaut’s families, the press corps handling the pictures and telling the story, those who watched it on TV….

Standouts for me

The whole scale of the operation staggered me – because I had thought that it was pretty much straight to the moon, then back down – but there were so many stages to the journey, with different teams on earth being responsible for different parts.

It was a tremendous sense of being in a time machine, going back to an America in a space race, with Nixon before Watergate, everyone in JFK’s shadow, hearing the news and seeing the fashions.

I had a shock when I saw the astronauts with closely cropped hair getting into their big space suits – I saw gleams of grey in among the dark hairs.  These were not young idealistic boys going gung-ho: these were family men: Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins were 38, Buzz Aldrin 39.

Columbia in lunar orbit, photographed from the Eagle

One of the moments which I found most powerful in the launch sequence was the moment when the mechanical arm swung away from the hatch.  The way that the astronauts had entered the craft was gone, that physical contact with the Earth.

The shock of how huge pieces of technology were jettisoned into space – the actual moon landing vehicle was just abandoned.

The way that the high tech vehicles looked surprisingly basic and like a large washing machine, separated into Columbia using its drum and the landing craft as the rest, twisted, bashed about a bit and with giant crude rivets.


SUM UP: A good film. Particularly attractive to a science geek or computer expert.


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