Reel Dad: ‘Apollo 11’ offers thrilling documentary experience

NASA/Rex Features.
NASA/Rex Features.

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.

Film Nutritional Value: ‘Apollo 11’

Content: High. With content as thrilling today as when it happened, Apollo 11 recreates the historical significance of man walking on the moon.
Entertainment: High. Despite the details in this history lesson, the creative filmmaking of Todd Douglas Miller makes this an entertaining journey to a time 50 years ago.
Message: High. With its layered examination of how such a technical feat was accomplished, the film teaches us how much it matters to look beyond the achievement to the details.
Relevance: High. At a time when our nation finds it difficult to agree about anything, remembering such a milestone is quite meaningful.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your children, talk about how its lessons impact what we see in our country today.
“Apollo 11” is rated G and runs 1 hour, 33 minutes.

‘Three Identical Strangers’ explores the power of documentary

Yes, truth can be richer than fiction, as any strong documentary proves.

As the father of twin sons, I have spent many of the past 31 years pondering the question, “nature or nurture” to consider what has most influenced their lives. From my first days with Matthew and Garrett, I have found myself captivated by their similarities, fascinated by their differences, and overwhelmed by such a marvelous miracle. And I was intensely curious, frequently wondering, “were they simply born this way or have they experienced different influences?”

Certainly, as they matured into grown men, they have selected different paths. Yet the similarities remain. All these years later, we are still amazed when, at the same moment, halfway around the world from each other, they may each be doing the same thing, or how they will call us at precisely the same moment. How much of this is the coincidence of choice or the inevitability of instinct?

From its first moments, the compelling documentary “Three Identical Strangers” asks many of these questions. We quickly meet Bobby a man who, years before, walked onto the campus of Sullivan County College only to discover, with surprise, that people recognized him. It turned out that his look-a-like, Eddy, attended the year before. And that, in fact, they were identical siblings who were separated at birth. Once their discovery was publicized, a third carbon copy appeared, David, as the boys realized they were, in fact, identical triplets, a highly unusual fascination in the world of multiples, and raised by three different sets of parents in very different surroundings.

If “Three Identical Strangers” ended at this point, we would feel satisfied with the happiest of endings as the brothers become pop celebrities well before the intensity of social media, appearing on various talk shows and creating quite a following that led to their decision to open a restaurant in New York City. But filmmaker Tim Wardle quickly turns an abrupt corner to introduce a dark side to this story. Why were the siblings separated at birth? What is behind the unusual dealings of the adoption agency that processed their births and family assignments? And could this coincidence actually be the introduction to a conspiracy involving secretive studies of human behavior? Within seconds, a story into a marvelous coincidence becomes a journey into a web of secrets, lies and deception.

Still, the humanity of the brothers comes through, in actual, current interviews, historical footage, and comments of family and friends. What emerges is a marvelous tribute to the miracle of multiples with a caution of what may not need to be scientifically investigated. Perhaps some miracles simply need to be appreciated.

In all my years as a father of identical twins, even when they looked so much alike, and continue to sound very similar, I hoped to consistently respect their individual lives and choices. “Three Identical Strangers” reminds us that, no matter how we may appear to the world, the inner challenges we experience can be more intense when people expect us to act certain ways. And people have many expectations of multiples.

“Three Identical Strangers” is rated PG-13 for “some mature thematic material.” The film runs 1 hour and 36 minutes, and is available on demand and online.