The new movie Apollo 11 is more document than documentary. It’s a meticulously edited compilation of film footage shot at the time of the July 1969 moon mission, and it includes no additional interviews, narration or title cards; the only voiceover is news coverage from CBS anchor Walter Cronkite (who goes unseen). Even the graphics and explanatory animation is contemporary (though quite sufficient).
The effect is to put viewers back in the middle of the unfolding drama, with the advantage of 50 years’ hindsight. Seeing closeups of the exteriors of the space capsule and lunar module, looking a bit like something assembled from spare parts in a garage, is just one of many moments when 21st century viewers will be amazed that NASA pulled this off with barely a hitch less than 25 years after World War II and fewer than 7 years after John F. Kennedy pressed the start button.
One long tracking shot along seemingly endless banks of paper-dependent machines monitored by countless men in white shirts and skinny ties makes Hidden Figures look like gross oversimplification.
Other than the masterful editing (often in split screen) by director Todd Douglas Miller, the movie adds only an admirable and largely electronic score by Matt Morton and a few begrudging subtitles that are so small and briefly seen, they’re easily missed — mostly the names of participants and countdowns to upcoming turning points.
This is not an educational documentary; it’s an immersive one. The audio is often barely intelligible and anything that wasn’t filmed at the time can’t be included. There are few explanations of anything, so don’t expect to learn much that will be useful at cocktail parties.
Apollo 11 may best be appreciated as an appendix to last year’s First Man, a narrative film that tells you more about the people involved and covers the back story that’s missing here. And this time out, you get the unfurling of the Stars and Stripes on the lunar surface instead of Damien Chazelle’s relentless depiction of Neil Armstrong’s pervasive melancholy. It’s a worthwhile trade.
Grade: B. Rated G. Opens March 8 at the Fine Arts Theatre.