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Wow.

First Man

Buzz Aldrin
Buzz Aldrin

Apollo 11 is a brilliant documentary.

It’s so brilliant, it doesn’t even remotely feel like a documentary. It’s on par with Damien Chazelle’s First Man in terms of atmospherics and cinematography. And Apollo 11 trades in Ryan Gosling for the real deal, Neil Armstrong.

This one comes on the heels of Peter Jackson’s equally mesmerizing World War I documentary, They Shall Not Grow Old. Both follow a similar strategy: long unseen archive footage has been resurrected, restored and brought to new life. In this case, even enlarged to the massive IMAX format (with some spectacular 70 mm source material). And both documentaries eschew the traditional singular voice of a narrator in favor of authentic audio recordings.

With Apollo 11, those voice recordings dovetail nicely with the onscreen footage captured in July 1969.

And it’s so fascinating to watch. It is indeed every bit a Hollywood-scale movie.

All of the traditional movie beats are there. The establishing shots. The gritty, fuzzy footage of the smoke and flames as the Apollo 11 rocket blasts off. All those visual cues associated with a mega-budget production are here, sourced from footage that would’ve otherwise been inserted into a TV documentary without a second thought. Here, their full impact is revealed and relished.

The Eagle Has Landed

The “story” starts a couple hours before the launch of Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are preparing to board a van that’ll take them to the launchpad.

Meanwhile, a leak in the propellant system is being addressed. Bolts are being tightened, an announcer states calmly and matter-of-factly. A problematic valve is being bypassed.

All this while the trio of astronauts enter the capsule.

The footage goes split screen with various coverage — gangway monitors, launchpad cameras, command center footage. Gloriously grainy film segues to stunningly pristine footage of the crowds assembling to watch the launch. All those hairdos and sunglasses and ’60s fashion statements. Is that Johnny Carson in the crowd? Sure looks like him. And President Richard Nixon gets a cameo. That’s before his presidency hits the skids. There’s also scuttlebutt about Ted Kennedy and his incident at Chappaquiddick.

All of this has the precise look and feel of a movie directed by Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg. But, of course, reality is the comparison goes the other way around. And it’s so cool to observe the end credits. Armstrong, Aldrin and others are listed as cinematographers. But the nicest touch — a fitting tribute — is the listing of all the NASA crew, with their names arranged to form the number “11.”

American Soul

There’s nothing here that necessarily contradicts Chazelle’s First Man. Actually, both movies are the perfect companion piece to each other.

That first step is perhaps even more anti-climactic in Apollo 11, but it also elevates the sense of national pride with celebratory flag-waving. American flags. Yes, America. It is okay to be proud to be an American. There is no shame in staking claim to being the first to walk on the moon.

And there’s something telling about the “lead characters” — Armstrong and Aldrin — in their vital stats. Heart rate monitors send back data. At one point, it’s announced Armstrong’s at a heightened 110, while Aldrin’s at a restive 88. Later on, as the landing event unfolds, Armstrong skyrockets to 157. No data’s reported back for Aldrin.

It’s been said that real life rarely offers itself as fodder for a movie. That is to say, even the most challenging of history’s events requires some gussying up for and by Hollywood. But surely Apollo 11 is an example of the exceptions.

Even the humor is right there, in the audio. As Aldrin exits the capsule to follow Armstrong’s one small step, he jokes about making sure not to lock the capsule door behind him. All the while, Michael Collins orbits the moon, awaiting the return of his crew mates. As he drifts to the dark side of the moon, he is truly positioned to experience isolation like no one else ever has.

That’s the human spirit. That’s the American spirit. Monumental history unfolding with quiet, understated humanity and humor.