Certain cultural artifacts become so embedded in our lives that they evade notice. It can be difficult to recognize the greatness of say, The Beatles, or Denzel Washington, or McDonald’s fries – their very ubiquity obscures their originality. This perhaps goes doubly for important historical events, which get quickly carved in the stone of cultural memory. The Kennedy Assassination, the Fall of the Berlin Wall: it’s nearly impossible to approach these events with fresh eyes. As someone who grew up in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center, I feel this sense of ossification surrounding the space program – and what NASA event is more iconic than the Apollo 11 moon landing? The wonder of Apollo 11 lies in its astonishing feat of de-familiarizing the achievement of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins to such an extent that the moon landing feels new again.
Apollo 11 is a feat of archival research. Director Todd Douglas Miller has combed through hours of footage filmed in the build up to and execution of the Apollo 11 mission, and he presents his treasure trove in energetic ways. Essentially a chronological retelling of the mission, Apollo 11 distorts its straightforward story through its choice of footage and its use of split screen editing. Miller frequently chooses footage shot from odd angles and vantage points, capturing in the process an unconventional view of the events. He is just as interested in what the official narrative would consider peripheral concerns – the crowds that gather, and particularly the hundreds of NASA employees toiling away to keep the astronauts alive and on course.
This is where the split screen comes in. Frequently, Miller places images of the Apollo crew in space alongside shots of the ground crew amidst their computers. He has fun with this conceit, frequently swapping the images from side to side, and cramming more than two images into the frame. From time to time he even employs the technique causally, starting with one image where someone will flip a switch, and in response the astronauts will come into the frame in another image. In this way he highlights the often invisible infrastructure of the mission, arguing that the moon landing was a communal achievement of a special kind.
The most indelible images in Apollo 11 also work to make strange the moon landing mission. As the spaceship takes off from Earth, Miller captures the event via an image of the fire of the engines, a strange but affecting synechdoche. When Armstrong makes his momentous landing, the audience sees it from above, at such an angle that it barely registers – one small step, indeed.
My only minor quibble with the film is the score, by Matt Morton. At times it is eerie and effective, but more often it opts for bombast and sentiment, which works against the film’s otherwise very businesslike approach to the mission. But that’s a small misstep for a film that so vibrantly retells history, and subtly argues for the power of cooperation over competition.