The best thriller of the year is a documentary about the first moon landing

The calm before the storm.
The calm before the storm.
Image: Neon
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Only a few seconds into Apollo 11, you realize that this is unlike any documentary you’ve ever seen. In crystal-clear, breathtaking detail, NASA’s crawler-transporter—a veritable city on wheels—lumbers across the screen, herding the mighty Saturn V rocket to its launch site. A few weeks later, that rocket sends three American astronauts barreling toward the moon.

You know the story, but you’ve never seen it like this.

Comprised entirely of archival footage that’s never before been released to the public, Apollo 11, now in theaters, tells the story of the first moon landing as if it were a Hollywood thriller. There are no interviews with the subjects, no heavy-handed narration. There are only the sounds and images of the occasion—stunning and immediate, despite being a half-century old. A mostly electronic score pulses in the background, as the determined faces of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins fill the screen.

That its ending is preordained (they reach the moon, plant the flag, no one dies) doesn’t make Apollo 11 any less thrilling. The unearthed footage is too mesmerizing, and the feat too incredible, for you to look away. It is a depiction of a wondrous human experience, told with startling clarity. It’s as close as any of us will ever get to that big gray rock floating far above our heads.

Director Todd Douglas Miller and archivist Stephen Slater worked with NASA and the US National Archives to unearth hundreds of hours of video (paywall) and thousands of hours of audio that they then had to match to the footage. (They also had to convert all of the film into a digital format.) Perhaps the only feat of mankind as painstaking and precise as launching three people to the moon is the act of turning all that footage into a coherent, exhilarating narrative.

It helps that the footage they found really is that remarkable. The accompanying audio, too, is a total treat, especially the radio communication between the astronauts and mission control back in Houston, Texas. (One particular gem is a radio communicator recording the three astronauts’ heart rates during the launch sequence. Collins and Armstrong’s were both well over 100, as you’d expect. Aldrin’s was 86—pretty much a normal resting rate.)

Apollo 11 comes shortly after another documentary that makes great use of archival footage—Peter Jackson’s World War I doc They Shall Not Grow Old. Jackson and his team sifted through 600 hours of video from the Imperial War Museums in England and audio from the BBC archives, before restoring, colorizing, and converting it to digital. Jackson also hired lip readers to decipher what the soldiers in the footage were saying, and voice actors to act their words out.

Neither the 1969 moon landing nor World War I are mysteries to the general public, but these two documentaries both fill in gaps in the emotional stories, using faces, voices, and personal accounts to add to our understanding of these historic moments. History is not finished when you learn what happened. We should also unravel, as best we can, what it was like to be there. In under two hours, Apollo 11 takes us to the moon and back.

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