Thursday, August 01, 2019

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

Shoot the moon

For the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, a re-release oTodd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 documentary in several theaters (plus Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu) including spectacular never-before-seen 65 mm color footage of the launch, capsule recovery, and aftermath (mainly activities aboard the USS Hornet).

Miller tells the story direct cinema style: no narration or interviews staged for the film, only what's available from archives--most notably Walter Cronkite's voice as the nation's official storyteller, explaining events onscreen.

The film is verbally flat but visually a blast, especially early on. Where we're familiar with the murky black-and-white video transmitted by broadcast news (back when there were only three channels in the USA) or the later shots of various vehicles and spacesuited figures, the 65 mm is a revelation. Arguably the best dramatically staged launch in a narrative feature is Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, where Atlas rockets shuddered off their icy carapace and lifted into the sky, to the strains of Gustav Holt's The Planets; this if anything surpasses Kaufman, the image stretching across the theater wall, crystal clear and in brilliant color. The PA counts relentlessly down, the watching sundrenched audience holds their collective breaths, the Saturn V--one of the most powerful engines ever constructed--unleashes seven million six hundred thousand pounds of force in a titanic roar against the launch pad, thrusting three hundred feet of metal into the air. 

The rest of the film may feel anticlimactic as more familiar footage (some of it deftly shot by the astronauts themselves, who have earned honorary membership in the American Society of Cinematographers) takes over. When Armstrong attempts to land the lunar module, Miller does resort to a device familiar to videogame players and 24 viewers: a clock to one corner of the screen, indicating distance to the ground and remaining seconds of fuel. Even if we know the ultimate outcome (it's close) you might find yourself clutching your armrest for reassurance.

If you want to learn what the astronauts felt--we do hear them speak--you might want to look elsewhere. Maybe not First Man; Chazelle's drama attempts to crack open Neil Armstrong's hermetically sealed persona, but doesn't quite go far enough for me, or at least doesn't quite succeed in evoking the man's sense of alienation (the most revealing sequence, a private moment on the moon, is alas a fictional disappointingly sentimental conceit). I'm thinking more of For All Mankind (available on the Criterion Channel) journalist-filmmaker Al Reinert's 'documentary' of the Apollo program, really a collage of six missions edited into one.

No Armstrong doesn't reveal much in Reinert's film either; you notice his absence in the list of narrators approached (absent as well is Buzz Aldrin--which is odd, considering his outspokenness). But other astronauts do speak up, and their words add an eloquence and depth of feeling and occasional surrealism to the imagery (Ken Mattingly before the launch: "And here was a kind of strange quiet. You look out and you can see the large part of the state and ocean and this this thing out here. You have a feeling that it's alive." John Swigert looking down at a distant Earth: "Everything that I know--my family and my possessions my friends my country. It's all down there on that little thing."  Charles Duke, dreaming about driving the rover across the lunar surface: "...we found this vehicle. It looked just like the rover. The two people in it--they looked like me and John--had been there for thousands of years.").

The collage effect--the fact that the missions use identical vehicles going through identical motions (three-stage ascent; crossing with command and lunar modules linked arm-in-arm in an interplanetary dance; lunar module's descent; command module's return and parachuted landing); the fact that suited up and helmeted the astronauts look interchangeable, and even with helmets off one middle-aged cleanshaven Caucasian seems indistinguishable from another (even their voices tend to blend together)--actually comes to have a point: the Apollo program as a single mission--to develop the training equipment techniques to reach the moon--its people a collective consciousness focused not just on scientific objectives but on savoring the glories along the way, the full meaning of the achievement. In effect we--all mankind--and not just a select few have touched the lunar surface, have realized how small we can be, how little (or how much) we can do despite our relative stature in the universe.

To Miller's credit he cites Reinert's film as an inspiration. Miller's own work is not nothing--for the 65 mm material alone the film is more than worth the price of the ticket. By all means, see the 2019 documentary for the mindblowing imagery, then go watch the 1989 film for their voices (and O hell why not look at Chazelle's biopic while you're at it)--in my book the more Apollo the better. 

First published in Businessworld 7.26.19

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