'Apollo 11' Review: It's a Masterclass in Vérité Filmmaking

A documentary that feels like time travel.

To watch Apollo 11 is to time travel. It’s not just a movie, it’s a front row seat to a story in our species’ violent and embarrassing history on this rock, when everything worked and we saw the stars. From its immersion, born out of a masterclass in vérité filmmaking, Apollo 11 is a transformative and dream-like experience that reaffirms not only the wonder of space but our ability to see it all.

In Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 from CNN and NEON, audiences witness the 1969 moon landing with astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin and follow them back on their journeys home, sometimes minute for minute. The film is notably made up of perfectly preserved 50-year-old archival footage shot in 70mm and up-converted to IMAX. The end result looks like it was shot yesterday.

The film is a technical feat that potentially one-ups Peter Jackson bringing color to World War I in They Shall Not Grow Old. With so much material at the filmmakers’ disposal, Apollo 11 can let actual history — such as the landing on the Sea of Tranquility — play out in real time with vivid clarity. The result is nothing short of astonishing.

On occasion, it’s not the grandeur of man’s ingenuity that makes the film work. Sometimes, in moments that caught me off-guard, it was the fly-on-the-wall views, be it of our space boys chilling in the shuttles or normal people munching on hot dogs to see a rocket fly, that deliver on the film’s bigger picture of humanity.

NASA Apollo 11
Astronaut Michael Collins in the new documentary 'Apollo 11' that gives viewers a front row seat to the 1969 Moon landing.

The Apollo 11 mission really is, and was, a big deal, a monumental achievement of science and human will. It was also a hopeful symbol of where we as people ought to be. As civil rights raged on outside NASA (and equal rights were fought within), sending actual people to space felt like we made it to the World of Tomorrow. Fifty years later, we now entertain the dumb “Space Force” while dismissing the realities of climate change. Apollo 11, with its lingering shots of families napping and sunbathing with Saturn V on the horizon, is a beautiful snapshot of when we treated science with respect rather than seeing it as an opportunity to balloon the defense budget.

These moments also emphasize the focus on immersion that’s all throughout Apollo 11. In a fashion similar to 1969’s Salesman and the 1993 political picture The War Room, Miller sacrifices almost everything that would remind the audience they’re watching a stuffy documentary. There are no voiceovers or talking heads of geriatric scientists. Communiqué from Mission Control is as garbled and textured as someone doing bad Bane impressions through a GarageBand filter, and there are no subtitles. Miller really cares about putting us into the world of Apollo 11.

Sometimes, it’s to the movie’s detriment (they really need subtitles for NASA communications). But whether it’s sitting among caffeinated coordinators in Houston or being strapped to a rocket barreling towards Luna, the film’s ethereal sense of immediacy and immersion is unparalleled.

NASA Apollo 11
The new documentary 'Apollo 11' is made up of 50-year-old archival footage, perfectly preserved, that has been up-converted to IMAX.

Even without the significance of the Moon landing, Apollo 11 is a masterclass in storytelling. (There are going to be many documentary film students who study this movie for years to come.) Because it is also about the greatest human feat of the 20th century, the film is both an impossible dream and a historical document packaged as one spectacle. Living the tense moments of the actual landing on the moon, followed by the quiet minutes of Armstrong making that giant leap for mankind, is breathtaking.

This film exists because someone at NASA was actually a genius. Some anonymous individual decided that, yes, history should be archived and filmed untold hours in high-resolution, 70mm film. Then they proceeded to — wait for it — properly store the footage. We don’t even have a proper master print of the original Star Wars because someone in George Lucas’ camp didn’t take care of the reel. That we have all of Apollo 11 is a miracle.

Apollo 11 is in theaters now.

Media via NEON