One of the things we learn from the wonderful documentary “Apollo 11” is that at lift-off from Kennedy Space Center in July of 1969, Neil Armstrong’s heart rate was a mere 110 beats per minute. It was also 110 during the lander’s descent to the lunar surface, although it got up to 156 at the moment of touchdown; good to know that the first member of our species to walk on the moon allowed himself some excitement. Your own pulse will pound often and hard during Todd Douglas Miller’s film, which opens this week exclusively in IMAX. Much of the footage hasn’t been seen before, and it was scanned from pristine 65 mm source material, so this evocation of the mission half a century ago is as good as it’s likely to get—meaning not just good but magnificent.
There’s no narration, no intrusion by talking heads, only the voices of the astronauts, the controllers and, from time to time, the CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, who was the closest thing this country had back then, and maybe since then, to a universally trusted authority figure.
Last year “First Man,” the fine feature directed by Damien Chazelle, focused on Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, to dramatize the mission’s emotional cost. “Apollo 11” dramatizes the magnitude of the event from the start—and the peril, which is implicit in the thundering of the rocket as it takes off. (No microphone or sound system could capture that sound, which was literally bone-rattling: I was there, covering the launch for Newsweek, and I was much closer to the launch pad than I was supposed to be. My bones were rattled to the point where I thought they would come apart.)
You don’t hear any sense of danger in the matter-of-fact exchanges between Houston and the lunar voyagers. There are periodic outbursts of joy—at the landing, the second lift-off that begins the trip back home, the docking that reunites the lander with the command module, the end-of- mission splashdown—but even the joy is relatively restrained: no high fives, no pumped fists, none of the ritual emotional inflation of our time, only cheers, applause and incandescent smiles at the wonder of the achievement.
Yet the film generates an immensity of emotion, some of it patriotic. “First Man” was criticized, unjustly, for not showing enough of the American flag that was planted on the moon. “Apollo 11” gives us plenty of footage of the Stars and Stripes flying flaplessly in the solar wind. More than that, the film celebrates the crew’s return in a sudden upsurge of song—John Stewart’s “Mother Country,” with its last, repeated lines, “Oh mother country, I do love you.” The sentiment isn’t subtle, but it’s a powerful expression of humanity’s longest round trip.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.