The most perfect movie that will ever be made about its subject, 'Apollo 11' takes the purest documentary idea imaginable – telling the story of the first journey to the moon and back using only the footage captured in the moment – and rides it all the way home. Conceptually, it’s a masterstroke: Other films have leaned into narration or interviews, while Damien Chazelle’s brooding 'First Man' took a leap into personal grief.
But by mining a trove of NASA’s archival footage (much of it unseen since 1969 or ever), disciplined filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller places an unmistakeable emphasis on the thousands of people who toiled in quiet synchronicity, pulling off America’s greatest mission without a hitch. 'Apollo 11' will bring you to tears – it’s a reminder of national functionality, of making the big dream happen without ego or divisiveness.
Miller’s exhilarating first act supplies an emotional catharsis that’s rare in nonfiction (or, frankly, movies in general). Quietly, the rocket is rolled out on a massive tractor platform. Crickets chirp on a hot July night. In the astronauts’ blindingly white dressing room, the three-man crew – Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin – suit up. Their personal backstories receive flurries of silent images: wedding photos, military service, children. These flashes play like insistent memories; it’s the kind of subliminal device a dramatic director would use to root a character in psychology. Amazingly, this technique feels new to docs. Strictly speaking, 'Apollo 11' isn’t 100 percent 'direct cinema'; it has an original score, a powerfully insistent collection of ascending synth drones by Matt Morton. The minimalist music amplifies the you-are-there-ness, as helicopter cameras take in crowds assembled on the Florida beach. A dad naps with his son. Women wave. Johnny Carson shows up in his shades.
The main event has visual elements we’ve come to expect from Hollywood – the rows of somber tie-wearing technicians, the shuddering vertical column of fire – but to see it for real is disquieting: This actually happened. Miller doubles down on the capsule’s own cinematography, approaching the tannish gray surface of the moon to a mere 60 feet and landing in one unbroken take, maybe the most historic piece of footage ever captured. And still, 'Apollo 11' never loses sight of a larger human richness, the kind that would include dorky astronaut banter, the crisp audio of Walter Cronkite’s reporting ('This is, of course, the great day for mankind'), another news flash about Edward Kennedy, mired that same weekend in a drowning incident at Chappaquiddick.
Subtly, the film draws you into the science. You’ll be nervously eyeballing ticking velocity numbers in the corner of the screen. But always, 'Apollo 11' is about people working together in a single-minded spirit of peaceful ambition. Miller includes both John Kennedy’s rousing 1962 speech that kicked off the multiyear project and Richard Nixon’s elegant congratulatory phone call, an unmistakable rebuke to today’s credit-hogging leadership. Generously, you come to appreciate the larger organism at work here, fueled by teamwork and precision. 'Apollo 11' won’t be surpassed, but it will serve to inspire – that’s almost guaranteed.