The idea is to hit you with the scale, to impress us with the magnitude of what was attempted and what was accomplished.
So “Apollo 11” begins with a closeup of NASA’s gigantic crawler, the tracked vehicle — then new — that hauled a fully assembled 325-foot Saturn 5/Apollo rocket from the enormous Vehicular Assembly Building to Launch Pad 39A.
Only a building “so big it has its own weather” could piece together what was then the most complex machine in human history. Only a tractor that could bear the weight of a city block could move that enormous space ship down the long, flat path to the launchpad that would send men to the moon.
Breathtaking and definitive, “Apollo 11” avoids voice-over narration or overly-explaining anything about America’s date with destiny in July of 1969. If we aren’t old enough to remember it, we’re supposed to know it. It’s in our DNA.
What this documentary does is give us huge images and stunning detail, digging deep into restored footage from NASA’s massive archive of color film stock and grainy videotape to show us just how big a deal this was and remains.
Control rooms jammed with row upon row of launch control, mission control technicians — scientists, men and women in white shirts and ties, white Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Rockwell or NASA lab coats, “computers” and “monitors” with matching headsets.
This was analog’s finest hour, human beings, “calculators” or as “Hidden Figures” reminded us, “computers,” staring at cathode ray tube monitors with headsets adorned by stick-on label maker name tags.
An army of mostly-men in more lab coats, wearing helmets or hairnets, taking a break from working in the Clean Rooms assembling future Apollo missions to see their handywork lift off into the heavens.
And in tiny Titusville, Florida, a sea of humanity — tens of thousands of spectators in Panama hats and cats-eye sunglasses, Johnny Carson in one of those plaid sports coats — all waiting to see history be made.
“Apollo 11” blows this over-familiar story — a narrative without narration — back up to the larger-than-life size it deserves. We may hear space buff TV anchor Walter Cronkite pontificate about “the hopes and burdens” carried by the the three astronauts at the finish line of the army many thousands of technicians, engineers, scientists and bolt-tighteners got them to — “for all mankind.”
But it’s as superfluous as command module pilot Michael Collins’ observation via radio of “the enormity of this event.”
Filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller (“Dinosaur 13”) makes speech unnecessary. We can see it. And when the Saturn V’s engines fire, we can feel it.
It’s a thrilling film, using only the shortest montage to skip through the backgrounds of the men who undertook the mission, limiting Matt Morton’s swooping, pulse-pounding score to several scenes, not all of them.
There’s so much implied in this footage — the American sense of purpose and pluck channeled into Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” the rarest breed of men, the ones Tom Wolfe immortalized with the phrase “The Right Stuff,” a more homogeneous America (at least as far the “history” we were taught and on TV, shown back then), and a country that grasped the importance, purpose and urgency of science.
Sputnik did that to us, Kennedy trumpeted it from the mountaintops, Johnson and Nixon and TV news reinforced it.
NASA staffers catch glimpses of Vietnam on the cafeteria TV, mutter about having to compete with Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick debacle with Mary Jo Kopechne for the top spot on the evening news.
But in that capsule, buttoned down pros go about their business, always professional.
That’s where the rare moments of humor spin out of this 93 minute odyssey. NASA’s mission communicators did everything out in the open, back in an era when we knew the difference between ourselves and the Russians. Every glitch was mentioned and dealt with.
And when we’re told of the heart rates of the three Apollo astronauts as they experienced liftoff, you have to chuckle. The coolest customer of them all, the one least excited by all this excitement — was Buzz Aldrin, Steve McQueen in a space suit.
Fussing with Michael Collins about the monitors not delivering data from the bottom of his rib cage only invited a little deadpan.
“I promise to let you know if I stop breathing.”
As familiar as this story is, I was amazed at the simple graphics (countdowns, mission maps), the skilled interplay of images “up there” with chatter and images of those doing the chattering, conferring and celebrating in Florida and Houston, all of which allowed Miller to give this real edge-of-your-seat excitement and tension.
People old enough to remember Apollo will recollect the famous NASA acronyms, “TLI, trans lunar injection,” and the like.
And generations raised on special effects space odysseys will marvel at the tactile, intestines-ratting blast of engines, bolt-separation explosions and the like, stuff that real people with the Right Stuff actually did with little more than a legion of women and men with slide rules as their mathematical guides.
As I write this, I am in view of the VAB — the Vehicular Assembly Building — and the launch pads where Boeing, Space-X and Blue Origin and others deliver exciting but pale imitation launches into space to this day.
There are monuments, museums and parks to the space program in general and Apollo in particular, all over this corner of Florida. It’s woven into the fabric and the lore of Florida’s “Space Coast.”
When I first moved my sailboat here in the early 2000s, the diesel mechanic everyone trusted their engines to was a bespectacled, bookish eccentric named Kapus. Why did we use him? In a previous life, he kept the diesels on the crawler running.
I was thinking of him and the thousands like him as “Apollo 11” unfolded. And as Miller’s film rolls out scores upon scores of NASA names in its closing credits, one last exclamation point on the enormity of the enterprise, I realized Miller would have had it no other way.
MPAA Rating: G
Cast: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Gene Krantz, Clifford Charlesworth, thousands of others
Credits:Directed by Todd Douglas Miller. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:33