This is the 50thanniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and there will be no end of documentaries and dramas to celebrate it. I suspect this will be the film to beat.
Todd Douglas Miller has trawled through the NASA archives covering 11,000 hours of film that have been hidden away since 1969. The results of his labours are astonishing especially in his immaculate restoration of some of that early colour celluloid: it looks as if it was shot yesterday with the contrast of the ginormous white rocket with its black and red markings and its US flag set against the azure sky.
The skill is in telling the story straight: no interviews, no pundits, no recollections, just an A-Z chronicle of one of the most momentous events of our lifetime. The only additions are a dramatic score by Matt Morton, all produced on instruments contemporary to the period, which ranges from majestic to tense, reflecting the unfolding drama, and a few helpful diagrams, needed to illustrate quite how intricate and risky the whole mission was.
I was dumbfounded not only at the number of uncouplings as Apollo enters the various stages of its journey, but also by the complex maneuverings of the Eagle lunar module as it twists and turns to slow down, to land on the moon itself (‘the Eagle has landed’ – now I know where that catchphrase comes from) and eventually to reconnect with the Columbia mothership. I kept on having to remind myself that this was 50 years ago when computers were barely invented, yet this was all being controlled from planet earth.
The dialogue between ground control and Major Tom – no sorry Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – adds an eerie intimacy as they describe the earth from their ‘window’ and crack jokes: Buzz’s about being careful not to lock himself out as he descends the ladder reflects an extraordinary composure during such a momentous occasion. They are just such regular guys and we warm to them. In fact their photography skills were so highly regarded that they were made honorary members of the American Society of Cinematographers. But one couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Collins as he was orbiting around the moon – admittedly an important role but not so glamorous – waiting for our two heroes to return from their moonwalk. And those words uttered by Armstrong ‘That’s one small step for man…one giant leap for mankind’ send shivers down the spine.
All good documentaries should contextualise an event perfectly and Miller pulls it off. First we have the control room, with all the scientists (doing a lot of smoking, very 60s) tensely fixated to their grainy screens, then we have the crowds waiting on the beaches, camping out, sleeping on the sand, or in their cars, coiffing themselves before the great event, drinking coke and Dr Peppers, eating burgers, wearing fabulous sunglasses, taking photos with cameras great and small – all gloriously recording the excitement and the era in a vast cinematic sweep and, finally, we have the cause of it all, JFK’s rousing speech about putting a man on the moon. All in all most memorable way to spend 90 minutes and celebrate the US’s contribution to the world. We can only hope that Trump doesn’t try to hijack this unique moment in history as one of his own making.