Apollo 11’s greatest accomplishment is taking humanity’s most widely discussed preeminent event and making it riveting and new. Through the benefit of a driving score and new large format footage, the moon landing has never been this accessible for any audience, especially for modern spaceflight enthusiasts. The fact that common history can ever be as suspenseful or edge-of-your-seat breathtaking as it is here is a remarkable feat of ingenuity in the editing room, crafting a picture as suitably massive and determinedly hopeful as the events it describes.
The reason Apollo 11 works is that it stays with its story. It unfolds in chronological order and develops just as the mission does. This allows us to feel the suspense of the days. The very real optimism inherent in one of humanity’s greatest endeavors. We get to ride shotgun onto the moon and feel what everyone felt, from the control room to the shuttle to the crowds gathered at launch. It is a masterwork in editing, where we never leave the subject in favor of talking heads or superfluous information. If it must break from the scene, it scientifically illustrates the nature of that segment of spaceflight. It’s a bold approach, creating an ageless time capsule of fifty-year-old events, a documentary that has intrinsic historical value.
The moment it sinks in is at the launch. The true effectiveness of the film is mined from an ingenious score by Matt Morton. While it sounds distinctly ethereal and of-the-future, every instrument used dates back from the time of the landing. This is the retro futurism of giant modular synthesizers, an expression of other-worldly audio design that feels more at home on the moon. The decision to make something big out of old limitations creates an enormous soundscape of endless, rolling synth waves. During launch, we get a track called “Countdown”, a ruthless heartbeat timer that will cause undue tension – you already know the results – and yet when the music drops out and there is only the thumping counter left, something rises to your throat, perhaps an understanding of the real danger and suspense of the actual moment. This all makes the launch feel equally if not more pressing than it must’ve on that summer of ’69.
The idea that any documentary would be more of-the-moment than as if it were happening is a technical feat. Most of this is achieved through smart sound mixing and able techno fever dreams of the moon. As the shuttle passes over and we observe humanity’s first take of rock formations, we’re also charting fuel, and distance, measuring space as it is explored for the very first time. It is a dazzling creation in IMAX, and it must be experienced there.
The truth is that First Man (2018) misjudged the dramatization of the thing. Damien Chazelle thought we needed the human element, that it was about a man, but Apollo 11 is not a personality driven picture. It’s driven by teamwork and a country getting behind a single far-reaching idea and goal and accomplishing something out of this world. The past is new again: much like the remarkable They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) did for World War I, Apollo 11 has completely modernized the moon landing. There is an entire generation discovering the moon landing and it is more spectacular and universe-expanding than it has ever been. Apollo 11 may inspire us to dream again.