Directed by Todd Douglas Miller
One of my earliest lasting childhood memories is watching the moon landing in 1969. We sat around our tiny black and white TV with the spin channel selector (VHF was like a radio dial!), stunned, excited and a little terrified. And, like most early memories, my recollection of my emotions during the event parroted that of my parents and brothers. But, fortunately, they were old enough to recognize the import of the moment. All of which is a long way of saying I remember the famous televised sequences that have been repeated over and over more than I remember what actually occurred. In fact, I don’t think I even recall there being a lasting impression of anything other than the Neil Armstrong’s “small step/giant leap”. Alas, the next space exploration moment I recall is standing in the Norris Center at Northwestern as a senior theater major, haphazardly noticing the Discovery liftoff…stating to a fellow student how interesting it was that “man, we take the space shuttle so much for granted, we barely notice it’s happening”, and then…well, you know. Seven or eight hours later, we stopped staring at the TV. So, it was with those vague childhood images – and the long since eschewing of their importance – drifting in and out of my brain that I went to see Todd Douglas Miller’s incredibly dense documentary, “Apollo 11”.
Miller’s research and patience with the mountains of visual and aural elements that he had to sift through, both old and newly discovered, is extraordinary. Almost a one-man-shop, this is his first major release as a director and his first time editing any film. Yet his success in culling it in to such a tight and tension filled chronological cinematic event is unassailable. And, even in spite of the two people behind me who basically decided to do a podcast throughout the entire screening (seriously, wtf is wrong with people – shut up!), I was enthralled, hypnotized and lulled in to a different time. In fact, it pulled me in more than any of the dozens of fictionalizations of the Apollo program, “First Man” and “Apollo 13” included. Add to that the inscribed notion of a collective and unified moment in our country’s history that didn’t involve tragedy, and you have a touchstone of a film.
Matt Morton’s score for the film (using only isntruments and technology available in 1969) is perfectly placed, if a little too Diet ‘Kraftwerk-meets-Klaus Schulze’ to be listened to outside the context of the film. Perhaps a bit more Eno-isms would have helped. Regardless, it’s synthesized tension and drumbeats effectively articulate the inherent danger within every moment of the Apollo 11 process.
Now, will millenials, or Gen Y’ers have the same appreciation as I do? Probably not. It’s hard to imagine kids, who hold more computing power in their hands than in the entirety of the Apollo program, will think of it as anything other than kitsch. But just maybe they will be taken on the journey provided by Miller and they will have a new appreciation and understanding of what came before. But, regardless of how its received by hipsters and young’uns, “Apollo 11” will last as the standard bearer for a long-since moth-balled space program…a program that meant everything to kids like me in the late 60’s and early 70’s. And easy recommendation!