Pop Culture

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Apollo 11

Title: Apollo 11

Describe This Movie In One Destination Moon Quote:

JIM BARNES: Not only is this the greatest adventure awaiting mankind, but it's the greatest challenge ever hurled at American industry!

Brief Plot Synopsis: Seriously?

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 5 Trips to the Moon out of 5.

Tagline: n/a

Better Tagline: "If a civilization doesn't try to expand its horizons, it can never grow as a nation."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: First conceived by President Eisenhower, then championed by President Kennedy, who in 1961 declared a national goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the decade, the Apollo program required the largest peacetime investment in history and at its peak employed over 400,000 people. It succeeded in July, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon before returning to Earth with Michael Collins, who'd remained in lunar orbit in the command module.

"Critical" Analysis:
 The Apollo moon landings were the pinnacle of 20th century human achievement, and the first was an accomplishment unlike anything the world had ever seen. Todd Douglas Miller's new film Apollo 11 tells the story powerfully, with no editorializing and little embellishment, choosing instead to let the new footage and contemporaneous commentary speak for itself.

Working with NASA and the National Archives, Miller brings us images we've never seen before: real-time shots from inside Launch Control at Cape Canaveral and Houston's Manned Spaceflight Center, in-capsule footage of both the trans-lunar and trans-Earth injection burns, and never before seen coverage of the Saturn V launch and the eventual recovery of the astronauts after splashdown in the Pacific Ocean by the U.S.S. Hornet.

Miller wisely avoids any narration or added voiceover, using only the voices of various NASA personnel, the astronauts themselves, and Walter Cronkite. Events are given an emotional boost by Matt Morton's stirring score. And even though the outcome is never in doubt, and even though we went through this same ringer with First Man less than a year ago, Miller maintains the suspense of both the historic landing and the astronauts' return home.

It really doesn't matter how many times you've seen the footage (and if you're like this reviewer, you've watched the launch alone dozens of times), it's truly a new level of awe-inspiring. And if you have the opportunity to experience it in IMAX, so much the better. The shots of the moon's landscape from the lander are particularly breathtaking. Sure, it's rock and sand, but . . .  it's the moon.

If Miller's film excels at anything, it's depicting the sheer scale of the moon program. This is apparent from the beginning, with opening shots of the massive Saturn V rocket laboriously rolling to the launch site on its mobile launch platform. The MLP dwarfs the NASA techs walking alongside it, bringing home the massive scope of Apollo, which is further supported by shots of hundreds of personnel working the mission in the launch and command centers.

We also see the throngs of spectators who converged on the Florida coast to view the launch, and it's fun to pick out the more high-profile onlookers (LBJ! Johnny Carson!).

One can certainly make a case that the billions spent to send humanity to the moon might have been better used on domestic priorities, or that the endeavor served as a useful (if expensive) diversion from the government's less savory escapades. However, it's undeniable that the triumph of the first moon landing was one of the last times it felt like we were united by something other than tragedy, and Apollo 11 captures that zeitgeist in stunning fashion.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar