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"Apollo 11" doc is one giant leap for moon watchers — and movie lovers

Documentary on the 1969 voyage of Apollo 11, the first moon landing. Starring Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller. Streaming on iTunes, YouTube and Amazon Prime. 93 minutes. G

Apollo 11


Before that momentous small first step on the moon 51 years ago, there was a mundane last turn of a bolt at Launchpad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Just before liftoff on the morning of July 16, 1969, the mighty Saturn V rocket carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to their lunar destiny developed a hydrogen leak. A technician in hard hat and overalls was dispatched with a wrench to tighten a bolt. No problem, we’ve got this, an off-screen announcer confidently says in so many words.

We see it unfold in the cinéma vérité reality of "Apollo 11," a documentary by Todd Douglas Miller ("Dinosaur 13"), now available for streaming by awestruck Earthlings. It brings home, with thunder and glory, the magnitude of the mission’s achievement.

Not just the bravery of the three astronauts, but the skill, ingenuity and tenacity of the thousands of people back home who contributed to the moon landing’s success. So many things could have gone wrong — a fuel leak 17 years later during a launch would kill seven astronauts and destroy the space shuttle Challenger. But almost everything went spectacularly right.

What comes through in "Apollo 11," as much as the boldness of achieving JFK’s moon-race challenge, is the teamwork that made it happen. And it raises a question for all mankind to ponder, in the words of author Tom Wolfe’s astro lingo: Do we still have the right stuff?

The film is heaven for space nerds, even those of us old enough to remember watching the moon voyage unfold in real time on a B&W home television set, during the halcyon summer of ’69 when it seemed that anything was possible and the sky was no longer the limit.

Miller and his team found NASA’s original 65mm film footage of the moon mission, much of it previously unseen, which had been given to the U.S. National Archives. Along with restored 16mm and video footage, plus audio culled from 100 hours of recordings, painstakingly synced to the appropriate frames, the filmmakers wisely let these eye-popping images and ear-delighting sounds tell the story without need of narration or intrusive blocks of text.

There’s such clarity to Armstrong’s descent down the lunar module ladder and his first moments standing on the moon that at one point you can see his face inside his helmet’s golden visor.

"Apollo 11" just stands back and lets it all gloriously be, and what we initially behold is nostalgic. The camera casually roams among the one million people gathered in and around the Florida launch zone, U.S. President Richard Nixon and late-night funnyman Johnny Carson among them. They're dressed in the terrible fashions of the day, some guzzling beer for breakfast.

These moon watchers gaze hopefully skywards as the Saturn V lifts off at 9:32 a.m., belching out such intense flame it looks more like an atomic blast than a rocket launch. Inside Mission Control, a tracking shot reveals row after row of men — there’s barely a woman seen — in nearly identical white shirts and ties, as they declare “go for launch” from their individual mission tasks.

There’s much thumbs-up banter after Apollo 11 gets the official “burn for the moon” instructions to leave Earth orbit and strike out to our planet’s nearest heavenly neighbour. Command-module pilot Collins jokes to Houston that it doesn’t matter that his heart-rate monitor is on the fritz because “I’ll let you know if I stop breathing.”

Harsh reality intrudes when someone at Mission Control notes that U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy is in trouble following the accidental drowning of a young aide — and someone else mutters, far from prophetically, that the incident on Chappaquiddick Island will soon be forgotten.

All small talk ceases when lunar module Eagle begins its dangerous descent to the lunar surface, with fuel rapidly running out, craters dotting the landing zone and an overloaded computer — with less power than today’s smartphones — flashing warning codes that could force Armstrong and Aldrin to abort the landing.

This sequence, accompanied by Matt Morton’s propulsive score, is even more exciting that in Damien Chazelle’s excellent dramatic recreation of it in "First Man" (2018).

Mission Control tells mission commander Armstrong “you’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue here” after Eagle successfully lands at Tranquility Base, with just 16 seconds of fuel remaining. It will later be noted that Armstrong’s heart rate shot up to 156 bpm, equivalent to a hard workout, as he took manual control of Eagle to dodge a large crater the overloaded computer was guiding it toward.

I think my pulse might have been even higher, watching it. Maybe yours will, too.

(This review was originally published in the Toronto Star on Feb. 28, 2019.)

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