Image owned by Neon and from Variety
It is the best known journey in human history, perhaps our most important one so far. The journey to finally land on the moon was motivated by the existential nightmare that was the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. We tend to forget that beating an economic and ideological power to the moon was based more on what in the grand scheme of things, seems petty. In a period in which we could’ve committed collective suicide through nuclear war, we instead committed one of the most uplifting accomplishments possible and as Todd Douglas Miller’s 50th anniversary documentary showcases, we almost made it look easy.
A single moment of the entirely archival footage-based picture stands out to me from a film detailing what was once the fancy of Jules Verne. A small scene detailing a TV broadcast at the Kennedy Space Center. It details current events in the world outside of Apollo 11’s impending launch, such as another casualty report on the unending war in Vietnam and Ted Kennedy’s “Chappaquiddick” incident. An intentional reminder of how notably dark the decade of the moon mission was, which makes NASA’s success all the more relieving. I wouldn’t be surprised if many doubted NASA’s success not just due to how impossible it seemed to many, but with a decade as soul crushing as the 1960s, it would fit the tone for the mission to be a failure as well.
From the mobile launch pad being driven to position to Aldrin, Armstrong and Collin’s safe,triumphant return home, there is a surprising amount of tension to an experience everyone knows the outcome to. The music by Matt Morton has a steady yet deep beat which suggests the anticipation, the fear, the relief, and the honestly near incomprehensible audacity of what is being attempted. It reminds me of the up and down stress-inducing rhythm of Zimmer’s Dunkirk soundtrack. Rather than a growing sense of dread and tension release in Christopher Nolan’s WW2 epic, Apollo 11, using real footage, some never before seen, creates a truly harrowing sense of discomfort during the mission’s procession.
Consider being far from Earth, your only home. You are circling a dead sphere in space, preparing to land on that silver, grey ball. The smallest mistake could be disastrous, three men dead and so close to a groundbreaking goal. The Apollo crew and Mission Control’s straight, clinical attitude underlines how serious the endeavor is to watch. Oh, sure both those in space and those back on Earth are willing to crack a joke now and then. It’s one way of keeping the mood calm and focused in the most dangerous adventure imaginable.
Aside from how shockingly crisp the new footage look, as if it were shot yesterday, there’s not a whole else other than to say the film works surprisingly well for something so well documented. Again, new footage would create some new novelty but it’s the tone Miller goes for, of a steadfast yet uncomfortable focus that goes step by step on the mission’s route back and forth that sells it. Perhaps it’s the timing, perhaps it’s the music and framing of archival shots. Perhaps it’s just spending an hour and a half admiring how far the human spirit can really go, not just in terms of curiosity but in sheer courage to do something that I will never have the body and mind to do. The right stuff is seeing three real people doing the once impossible without a shred of external fear or smug confidence. They go about it before, during and after like it’s just a job, no glory being sought after.
It is comforting to remember that one of my country’s proudest achievements were carried through by hundreds of dedicated men at now-archaic computers and three astronauts who took the whole thing carefully but almost carefree, at least in the tone of their voice. One of the best things America and by extension humanity has ever done was done like it was nothing to sweat about. Why should we fear the future when we can tackle it like it’s just another job to do, however hard and terrifying it was and will surely be?