A few months back now, I became aware of Apollo 11, a film made from hitherto largely unseen NASA archival footage. At the time, I remember a lot of malarkey, googling around cinemas in Australia trying to find out where it would be playing. An IMAX in Sydney, I seem to remember, and I think I had already missed the dates. So the film’s existence had slipped behind my radar, which had more pressing concerns, bouncing off thesis due dates, momentary diversions into Stan dramas (Younger; The Bold Type) and Netflix rewatching of The Crown … the latter probably to offset the frivolu-fru of the former. In between I’ve been diving into vintage Crichton (for teaching), recommending The Time Ships to my other half, and suffering through some work literary fiction reading (too often stories about carefully observed banality of characters I care very little for … often very well written, but this is not the reason I read fiction. I can find it outside my door).
But, I digress.
About a week ago, the annual marginal benefit of being on the local superplex’s mailing list came through in an email announcing Apollo 11 would appear for a limited run across the anniversary weekend. So today, natch, I fronted up, was summarily reamed with a “special price” (which came with the added detriment of no trailers … one of the reasons I still go to the cinema) and went to see it.
Now, I’ve seen a good deal of footage from the Apollo missions before. I’m also well versed in space movies. The lapsed engineer in me still gets off on Apollo 13, Gravity, and the technical sequences in First Man (while the writer in me gets a little vexed when a thinky biopic goes a little far down its own rabbit hole). So Apollo 11 feels like something that will generate comparisons. And then, there are none. It is genuinely enrapturing, and not in the way I thought.
I mean, yes, the launch footage is fucking incredible. I don’t mind admitting the genuine emotion I get watching those engines fire. I mean, holy hell … the matter screaming out of those things that people designed and built, directing that power to such purpose. It feels so immense, so indescribably ambitious.
And that’s what the film does best … it captures the ambition of Apollo, and of the concert of human effort that made it happen. Of all those thousands of focused man-hours. Control rooms jammed with people. Cathedral workshops crawling with fabricators and technicians. But the other thing about it is that its just … so primitive. I couldn’t watch all those panning shots down rows and rows of ancient computer banks without thinking how stone age technology was then, just 50 years ago. The computer on the LEM stack overflowing as Armstrong and Aldrin made their descent to the surface.
And yet, look what was done. I couldn’t help feeling a keen sense of disappointment at how narrow our ambitions seem to be now, as people of this country, any country. How much capacity we have to work on this kind of problem with starting motivation, and continuing habitual pursuit. Not just in space exploration, but in any endeavour that aims for something beyond the next 4 years.
In any case, if you’re a space buff, I’d recommend catching it while it’s in limited release. It’s worth seeing on the big screen many of the sequences – the launch, the lunar footage, the shots of the control rooms, and the grippingly poetic moments, like the view from a separated stage segment, slowly processing as it falls away from the ship, in a pirouette that eventually brings Earth into view, a blue and white arc. The whole thing is unnarrated, just cleverly assembled 90-ish minutes of footage that follows the mission from beginning to end.
Arguments can always be made about where we should turn our attention and limited resources as a species. But this film isn’t really about that. It’s a demonstration of once fictional dreams brought to life, the embodiment of anti-banality. I was thoroughly captured from start to end.
… and as a point of interest for me (perhaps not to others without experience of oxygen systems) you might notice the dude who follows the astronauts from their prep room to the launch pad. The dude carrying the fire extinguisher. I saw that and thought, look at that, that guy’s there in case one of those three oxygen systems just walking around right now catches fire. The long shadow of Apollo 1. Incidentally, quite useful for my thesis.