On 20 July 1969, two astronauts landed on the moon while a third remained in the Columbia capsule orbiting the moon, on the ready for their return to Earth.
The world watched spellbound – well, an estimated 600 million did (the Chinese weren’t told about it). And if you were around then, you’ll remember where you watched it. I watched this re-enactment of the drama exactly 50 years later on 20 July 2019, and a full cinema was equally bewitched. Immediately as the film ended, the audience burst into spontaneous applause.
We’d been taken on a journey – a breathtaking journey through history to a memory we all hold in some way – whether it is of that time 50 years ago or more recently – we’ve all seen some footage of the landing.
At the end of Apollo 11, the man on my right said he remembered watching it with three drugged-out mates in London, although he says he was sober. The man on my left remembered gathering at his workplace around a tiny B&W TV to watch the landing. What struck me most about the film was that it was in colour, with the astronauts looking so young and vital. The footage we typically see is in black and white, as it was originally shown and in subsequent news footage, but this colour brought to life the spectators gathered around Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral) who had camped out in their cars, caravans and camper vans with friends and families. They lined the roads and shore of Florida in their airstream-like vehicles where the astronauts were taken from the space centre to the launching site.
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the powdery surface on the moon. Armstrong is responsible for the most famous photograph of that time – Buzz Aldrin with the landing capsule and Armstrong himself reflected on his visor. Michael Collins was the man left on his own orbiting the moon.
The Apollo 11 mission took a total of eight days, leaving on 16 July and returning on 24 July. The world was shown snippets of their mission in news broadcasts and again watched the broadcast on their entry back to earth and on their landing – which successfully dropped them into the sea off Hawaii to be picked up by the naval ship USS Hornet. This gave us previously unseen footage.
The film painstakingly recreates the mission and recounts it in the present tense; invoking the times, the scientists, the astronauts. It does not dwell on media reports, political posturing or the families of the astronauts that many other recent films and TV series have; it stays true to the mission itself, as anything else would be an unnecessary distraction. There is no need for dramatisation, this being a unique event, a first. The excitement has not been replicated since. Although 10 men have since walked on the moon, they’re not as easy to name. The only other news that is briefly mentioned to give context to the landing is Ted Kennedy’s accident at Chappaquiddick that claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne and the continuation of the Vietnam War.
We are transported with the astronauts on their mission – there is a feeling of being part of history being made, of seeing how it felt and what is happening for the astronauts. When they step out onto the moon it is as though we are with them, feeling the surface, the powdery soil and enjoying their camaraderie.
The astronauts demonstrate humour as they narrate, photograph, and provide most of the commentary of this film. We know the mission is successful before we enter the cinema but it is nonetheless a gripping 90 minutes. Several of the video recordings captured by the astronauts during the mission are featured, and these recordings by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins earned them honorary memberships in the American Society of Cinematographers.
Director Todd Douglas Miller and his team were given unrestricted access to the NASA footage and were able to draw on the increased quality of 11,000 hours of digitised audio recordings taken during the Apollo 11 launch. Much of the footage used contains alternative camera angles and footage that has not been used before in any other moon landing documentary. Apollo 11 starts with a countdown to the blast-off as some leaks are repaired on the spaceship and the astronauts are suited-up ready to take their positions. It follows them through each day, normalising their journey yet never forgetting the enormity of the mission with a huge NASA support team working in shifts to keep the mission on track. There is footage of the huge numbers of scientists, engineers, space workers and volunteers all playing a part in putting men on the moon. And while they were just three men in a small spaceship far above the Earth, the world was watching in awe and anticipation for them to complete their mission and return safely home.
When Armstrong plants the flag on the moon, he also leaves a plaque with the inscription: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
It certainly focused the world on the achievements of mankind, even just for a few days in July 1969. It would be nice to think that, as a world united, we can focus on our achievements once again instead of the pointless political squabbling we seem so immured in today.