July 18, 2019

Apollo 11 (2019)
Grade: 89/100

Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Stars: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins

What it's about. A CNN documentary of the July 1969 Moon landing, released in time for the 50th anniversary of the famous event. We watch the trio of astronaut heroes as they suit up, catch a ride to the rocket, take the elevator to the Command Module, climb inside, and enjoy the adventure of their lifetimes.

High quality archival footage documents the blastoff, the ejection of the boosters, the astronauts enjoying a view of the Earth from space, and the approach of the Moon as the lunar module lands. We see Neil Armstrong become the first man to step on the Moon, and deliver his famous line, "One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind."

Soon, he is joined by Buzz Aldrin. They plant a large, stiff U.S. flag on the lunar surface and collect Moon rocks. All the while, Michael Collins is thousands of miles away, orbiting the Moon and waiting to dock with the lunar module after it launches from the Moon into an orbit of its own. Once all three astronauts rejoin Collins, the lunar module is discarded, and the command module begins its return to Earth.

How others will see it. A supermajority of viewers recognize the quality and relevance of the archival footage, and the effort that went into distilling it down into a modest feature-length running time. At imdb.com, there are only 7500 user votes, but the user rating of 8.3 out of 10 is very high.

Most user reviews marvel at the footage, e.g. "the closest thing to a time machine"; "see it on the biggest screen you can"; "absolutely breathtaking." It is good to know that the zilions of dollars that went into the space program also allowed for appropriate filming of the landmark event.

How I felt about it. It is difficult to believe than man went to the Moon a half century ago, but has not returned to the Moon since 1972. Since the U.S. has spent five trillion dollars (so far) on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, it is difficult to believe it is a merely a matter of financial resources.

A better argument against lunar trips is that they are too dangerous. Entire Space Shuttle crews were lost in 1986 and 2003, three Apollo astronauts died when their capsule burned in 1967, and Apollo 13 barely made it home after their mission was scrubbed.

One concludes that it is better to save our brave astronauts by keeping them on terra firma, instead of making heroes of them via Russian roulette space missions. But in 1969, at least, everything worked out just as planned, to the great relief of dozens of Mission Control personnel and, especially, the astronauts themselves.

It is striking how segregated America was in 1969. All the astronauts, and virtually all of Mission Control, are white men.

On to the documentary itself. The quality of the archival footage is outstanding. The cinematography is beautiful. Its scale is imposing. The editing is excellent. And we spared modern celebrity narration and hosting. Overall, it is a wonderful effort and a tidy 93-minute film.

The technology and engineering of 1969 impresses. This was an era before pocket calculators, when televisions had a picture tube, and the personal computer was ten years away. One marvels at how the scientists could pinpoint the return of the astronauts to the precise spot where they could be picked up by the U.S.S. Hornet and a cluster of helicopters.

Each milestone of the flight imposes separate dangers. As they progress, the craft transforms from the 363-foot rocket launched into space, into an 11-foot command module that splashes into the sea. The most stressful part of the journey is the lunar landing, though the blast off from Earth, and the scorching temperatures experienced during the return to Earth, were also nail biters.

The lunar module was abandoned in lunar orbit. Eventually, its orbit decayed and it landed again on the Moon, presumably much less gently than the first time. Neil Armstrong died in 2012, but Collins and Aldrin are still with us, respectively aged 88 and 89.