Tuesday 16 July 2019

Across the universe: "Apollo 11"

In the fifty years since Man first set foot on the Moon, the movies have given us one very good and one near-definitive documentary on the achievement, namely Al Reinert's Oscar-nominated For All Mankind and David Sington's In the Shadow of the Moon. The USP of Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 is to show us the nine-day Moon mission as live - instantly bridging the generation gap separating those who sat glued to the lunar landing as it unfolded on the night of July 16, 1969 and those of us born over subsequent decades, who've tended to experience galaxy-changing events via rolling-news coverage. The miracle is how much - how much detail, how much tension, how much wonder - Miller squeezes from what is essentially raw feed: footage beamed back from the cameras positioned around the rocket, the launchpad and Mission Control over those fateful days, which was then locked up in a NASA vault for the best part of half a century. We've all seen so much in recent years that has threatened to leave us numb, jaded; Apollo 11 is the first film of 2019 - the first film for a long time - to equip everyone who steps into the auditorium with a fresh pair of eyes.

Approaching these events from the purely technical, rational perspective of a TV news producer - no emotive voiceovers or framing devices, a soundtrack that favours echoey tech chatter and electrical fuzz over stirring orchestral score - and as something that happened (that is happening) liberates the images: though they flow sequentially, with clear cause and effect, we often have to puzzle out the precise import of what we're seeing, and thus the mission entire. Far from some tweedy museum piece, Apollo 11 instead becomes an act of discovery (or rediscovery) in homage to the events it describes. Miller is aware that, five decades on, we might look at these images a different way to those who saw them on the nights in question. Hard, now, to watch the launch - with its searing flares of light and heat, and one remarkable close-up (perhaps frame enlargement?) of the rocket's haphazardly riveted underbelly - without being reminded of the Challenger disaster thirty years later; the journey towards the Moon would recall Apollo 13 even before the onscreen appearance of Jim Lovell (the astronaut played by Tom Hanks in the Ron Howard movie) among the NASA wonks; while a slightly trippy descent brings to mind Gravity, and perhaps even 2001. The film allows us to spot the risks, but also - as that dusty grey-white orb gets ever closer, and a whole new frontier opens up - the very great and lasting rewards.

One shift in emphasis involves the key personnel. Messrs. Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins occupied pride of place in the Reinert and Sington films, but the astronauts are limited to walk-on roles here, largely indistinguishable beneath their helmets and spacesuits. (We cannot tell whether, say, Armstrong was thinking of his late daughter, as last year's First Man rather fancifully supposed.) Instead, the focus is put back on the collaborative nature of the enterprise, Miller's editorial line insisting that this is what can be achieved when a nation puts its heads together, as opposed to locking antlers. Houston is evoked very nearly as vividly as the Moon: a vast support team of brillantined chaps touting sliderules and pocketguards, some puffing away on cigarettes, most of whom look as if they could be played by either Bill Pullman or Kevin Costner, each playing a part in ensuring Armstrong and cohorts enjoyed safe intergalactic passage. Time and again, the film amazes us with some display of precision, whether in Miller's approach - painstakingly matching comms feed to images, so the technicians can talk anew - or in the astronauts' own trajectory: witness the lunar module's descent onto the Moon - the most heartstopping setpiece of summer 2019, as it would have been in the summer of '69 - complete with rapidly descending onscreen fuel gauge and an alarm going off that we sense can't be positive. (Spoiler alert: the Eagle lands with sixteen seconds' worth of fuel remaining. Don't know about you, but that strikes me as a hell of a gamble to take while travelling this far at that velocity.) If you're suggestible enough to entertain the commonly held conspiracy theory that the Moon landings were faked, Apollo 11 will at the very least impress upon you the copper-bottomed thoroughness of the alleged fakers' con job.

The rest of us, looking back at Earth from the stars, will find ourselves pondering the question of where Man stands today, and one of the reasons the movie hits home so hard is that the answer is very likely: not all that much further on. Though there has been progress in the emerging nations - in India, especially, making good on its vast science and engineering potential - the best the West has recently proposed in the way of out-of-this-world activity is President Trump's so-called Space Force, less a coherent policy proposal than a ready-made pitch for some naff, sub-Glen Larson mid-Seventies network-TV dross, such that it was soon seized upon by The Office's Greg Daniels and Steve Carell as the basis for a spoof comedy. (As ever with Trump, the idea was all but forgotten about the moment the words escaped his lips.) Elsewhere, space programs have been defunded and dismantled, or passed into the grasping hands of entrepreneurs keen to profit from those who literally have money to burn. Miller can refute that idea of space as business-as-usual with most of these extraordinary images, but especially with one insert of the plaque the astronauts left behind on the Moon, bearing the legend "we came in peace for all mankind". If the use of past tense seems poignant, the documentary is fuelled - as Reinert's was - by those final three words: for all mankind, not just some. Apollo 11 returns us to a time of upward gazes and open minds, and to a universe without borders, which makes it something of a UFO at a moment when it feels as though everybody's retreated indoors to squabble on Twitter. Over the past few years, mankind has started to seem grounded if not mired, stuck on a planet with dwindling resources, making the best of a perilously bad hand. Apollo 11, 93 minutes that urgently insist we don't have to settle for this, reawakens the dreamer and the scientist within us, and allows the mind and spirit to soar.

Apollo 11 is now playing in selected cinemas.

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