It’s to the benefit of this documentary that everyone who sees it will have seen First Man last year, and be up to speed on the personal stories of the men of Apollo 11 and the historical context of the mission because director/editor Todd Douglas Miller concentrates instead on a mosaic account of those few days in the summer of 1969 – which I, and many others of my age, vividly remember – when all eyes on the planet turned to the sky. I overslept by twenty minutes and missed seeing that first footstep (timed for US prime time, so very early in the morning GMT) … but was up to see Aldrin join Armstrong on the moon. Miller does include a snippet of an ‘in other news’ broadcast and minor (slightly tasteless) control room gossip that reminds us the other big American story that week was the death of an intern in a car driven off a bridge by Senator Ted Kennedy, plus a misleading lull in the war in Vietnam. At the time, NASA intended to release a commercial documentary of the occasion and took the trouble to shoot a great deal of 65mm film, though those plans got sidelined. It’s not often remembered that following the moon mission, there was a slump in the aerospace industry (big layoffs) and in public fascination with the space program – in retrospect, it may have been that the event was so huge and such an immediate experience (on TV, just like Vietnam) that audiences felt they’d done that and moved on. Certainly, the only event that rekindled moon mania was the suspenseful near-disaster of Apollo 13.
Much of the ‘new’ footage shows the rocket being trundled to the launchpad and the gathering of crowds with cine-cameras, picnics, sunglasses, etc. to watch the lift-off – here, we get a sense that the moon mission was for science what Woodstock was for music or the Chicago riots of 1968 for politics, an emblematic group event. The flag is put up on the moon and Richard Nixon gets to speechify, but there’s a balance between the patriotism and militarism of the early space program – when it was a space race – and the less jingoist moment when ‘we come in peace for all mankind’ could be put on a plaque. In the much-quoted John F. Kennedy speech, which comes here at the end of the film, there was a stress on putting ‘Americans’ on the moon (and, equally importantly, bringing them back again – presumably there was a sense the Russians might cheat and send some cosmonaut on the one-way trips taken by the dogs and monkeys) but that gets filtered out. Even though the details of the voyage are familiar, they remain fascinating – we get handy diagrams, but no talking heads explainers – and tiny, odd, unnoticed-at-the-time dramatic moments or odd circumstances are captured … that Mike Collins grew a moustache while left on his own orbiting in the moon, that the mission commander discouraged celebrations on lunar touchdown because he knew the job wasn’t done until the trio were home, that Buzz Aldrin lost a lot of weight in space, that Armstrong was politely not that happy to come out of a capsule and have to spend three weeks in a quarantine cell (there were worries of an Andromeda Strain-type bug), that in uncannily clear close-up the Apollo rocket is a clunky thing of rivets and gold foil and burnmarks.
The material is very clearly shaped in the edit, with a lot of splitscreen, and a very canny sound collage with overheard scraps of chatter conveying vital information and that clipped dry (very Southern) phlegmatism that became the stereotype tone of astronaut-engineers in the era between Flash Gordon and Luke Skywalker. Matt Morton’s electronic score was made with instruments available in 1969, though its Tangerine Dreamy thrumm – with one significant intrusion by Johnny Cash – sounds more like something from the ‘80s.