Something about film documentary can be magical.
Because truth can be richer than fiction, watching actual footage and hearing authentic voices of a well-remembered event can make the familiar feel fresh.
We don’t see any surprises in the new film celebrating the achievement of “Apollo 11.”
We know the rocket took off, the crew completed its mission, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, and the Apollo capsule safely returned to earth. By the time the event occurred, the crew and the people working behind the scenes were so well-prepared they knew they would accomplish the impossible.
Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller comes close to duplicating this feat by assembling never-seen footage into a detailed documentary that takes us through each step of the journey, from earth to the moon and back again. While we may never fear the fate of the astronauts, we marvel at the complex technical accomplishment they create. We go back in time to a period when the nation seemed to unite around a single goal without divisive rhetoric.
The world was, in many ways, simpler in 1969. How people received news was much less complicated, for example, with fewer available choices. The film recreates this sensation by relying on the voice of Walter Cronkite, the anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” to serve as a quasi-narrator. He emerges as a voice of confidence throughout the film, just as he did when the events occurred, a reliable reporter of truth that people could trust.
As much as Miller appreciates the authenticity Cronkite brings to the film, the moviemaker doesn’t rely on the newsman as its only voice. What makes the documentary so accessible is Miller’s decision to tell the story in present tense, as if the events occur as we watch, without giving the achievement the perspective that time can create. That means we do not see a later-day Neil Armstrong comment on how he felt to be the first to walk on the moon. Instead Miller treats us, often in real time, to the experience as it happens, making us feel as though we are there, in 1969, when history is made.
The footage enhances the experience. Miller includes previously unseen visuals from the tireless workers at NASA, to the visuals from space, significantly broadening the film. Perhaps most thrilling in its detail is the liftoff of the rocket that carries the astronauts to space. No matter how many times we may see such videos, Miller tells this segment of the story with images we have not seen, giving us a fresh look at a sequence that, in its day, became most familiar.
Of course, for any of us who remember the summer of 1969, the movie brings back memories of how we crowded around small television screens to share a remarkable moment in history. The real value of “Apollo 11” may be, however, for those too young to remember, or our children who were not yet born. How wonderful for them to experience, as if in real time, a moment we could so proudly applaud as an American achievement. Together.