CNN’s “Apollo 11” documentary is as close to a time (and space) machine as possible…

The crew of Apollo 11: Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin.

SPOILER ALERT. In July of 1969, three American astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins left Earth in a monstrous rocket for a week-long journey to land a spacecraft on the moon and return safely to the Earth.

There, now that we got that out of the way…

Thanks to a Twitter reminder a week ago from someone I follow (Star Trek designer/graphic artist Mike Okuda), I dusted off my Fandango app and did a search for nearby theaters that were playing the new 50th anniversary commemorative CNN documentary of the flight of “Apollo 11”, directed & edited by Todd Douglas Miller.

One of the many local theaters near me… and, of course, none of them were playing “Apollo 11.”

Even though I am practically surrounded by a glut of multiplexes in my own backyard, the film wasn’t showing at any of them. The closest theater I found was not showing the film in IMAX (a real first world problem, I know), and it was a 30-40 minutes away in freeway traffic. No matter. I knew I had to go those extra miles to see this one theatrically, and I’m glad that I did.

Yoda was wrong. Sometimes, size does matter.

Stunning view of the Saturn V rocket from the exceptional CNN documentary “Apollo 11.”

Even in a regular-sized movie screen, the level of detail in these fully-restored, beautifully color-corrected images is simply amazing. There are moments that, if not for the 1969 clothes and hairstyles (or prolific smoking), you could almost believe were shot over the past weekend.

The ‘first man’ Neil Armstrong. No, not Ryan Gosling, but the real Neil.
Dr. Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the man who pioneered practical spacewalking techniques and the first PhD in space.
Command module pilot Michael Collins, who orbited the moon in a lonely vigil, waiting for the return of his comrades from the lunar surface.

You can not only see the pores in the faces of not just Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, but also in the faces of ordinary people gathered in Florida beaches near Cape Kennedy for the ‘launch parties.’ Just seeing regular men, women and children, with their bulky film cameras and binoculars at ready, all clamoring to get their own view of history being made. These were the kinds of shots that really made this doc truly relatable for me.

One of many crowd shots of VIPs and regular folk, all gathering (cameras & binoculars ready) to watch history unfold in that hot Florida summer of 1969.

I’ve been a space fanatic nearly my entire life, and could easily name most of the faces in the Houston Mission Control Room footage, but seeing the faces of ordinary people gathered in the parking lot of a J.C. Penny’s department store facing the Cape… that really clinched it for me. The fine-grain images of everyday folks at that incredible moment in time had nearly the same power for me as the thunderous launch of the Saturn V rocket.

The massive ‘crawler’, transporting the Saturn V rocket stack to the launch pad at a stately 1 mph…

“Apollo 11” wisely eschews many traditional documentary trappings, such as the talking heads of surviving participants or their children. Nor does it have a steely-voiced narrator mansplaining the whole thing to us. It simply plays the images, with some processed or enhanced sound effects recorded synchronous (or near-synchronous) to envelop us in the experience. If there is any narration, it’s incidental … recorded from the capcoms (capsule communicators) & flight controllers in Mission Control, or the astronauts in their own words in direct transmissions to the ground. That, and the occasional words of newscasters or US presidents.

Mission Control, Johnson Space Center in Houston: Some of the many ‘steely-eyed missile men’ who made Apollo 11 work.

In the Mission Control room, you see people like flight director Gene Krantz (immortalized in the movie “Apollo 13” by Ed Harris), astronauts Tom Stafford (Apollo-Soyuz), Jim Lovell (commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13, as well as pilot on Apollo 8), Ron Evans (command module pilot of Apollo 17), Pete Conrad (commander of Apollo 12), and dozens more.

My own pic of Buzz Aldrin, taken on the night of September 29th 2009, at a book-signing event at a theater in Pasadena.

As a teenager, I knew these guys’ faces the way other kids knew baseball players from their card collections. The astronauts were my star athletes. They were my superheroes. They are all mentioned in the credits, but none of them are announced onscreen by a narrator. “Apollo 11” doesn’t insult its viewers intelligence. To non-space fanatics, the faces onscreen could just as easily be flight controllers or engineers, and it’d be the same. It doesn’t really matter to a layperson, because they, like thousands of others unseen, were collectively willing the astronauts to the moon as one.

As Mike Collins says after his return to Earth, “You only see us, but we’re just the periscope of the submarine…”

A familiar image to history, but seeing it on a big screen in fine-grain detail is a breathtaking experience.

Most of the moonwalking footage is recorded off of LEM (lunar excursion module) video cameras or from extremely fine-grain Hasselblad camera still images displayed sequentially. They are even more crisp and stunning than the earlier movie images seen in the film (Hasselblad cameras were a gold standard in those days). Some of the shots on the moon I recognized from the hundreds of space books I have lying around my house, but an equal or greater number of them I’d never seen before. For example, there are closeups of the LEM landing pad wrapped in gold mylar for protection against the unfiltered sun, planted in fine grain lunar soil. This is as close as most of us mere mortals will ever get to seeing the actual LEM descent stage on the moon in person.

A pic of Buzz and the US flag, taken by Neil Armstrong. This is one of the more popular images from hsitory, but “Apollo 11” also presents new, unseen photos and video.

Some of the footage is punched up a little bit with new foley (sound) effects that feel like they could’ve been recorded at the time, but with modern equipment. We also hear sounds from inside the spacecraft that were probably not recorded live but fit very well, such as the sounds of the lunar command and command modules docking together in space (first with an initial thud of impact, followed with a solid clanging of the latching being secured).

The sights and sounds let you feel as if you are there, aboard the spacecraft.

The launch of Apollo 11, July 16, 1969. You are there in this film.

The sounds of the Saturn V launch have a certain modern cinematic ‘boom’ to them, but that’s exactly as it should be. My wife’s cousin, a longtime Caltech engineer, was at the Apollo 11 launch, and he described it to be as being bone-shakingly loud. That modern movie theater audio better recreates the experience is a benefit of 50 years of movie sound technology at work.

There is also some new incidental music from composer Matt Morton that gives certain moments dramatic punctuation. With few exceptions, “Apollo 11″ largely avoids using a lot of stock period music, which feels right, since landing on the moon was an experience for the ages, and not just the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The lunar surface as taken from the orbital mothership “Columbia”…

None of the new foley effects or music are distractions to this 93 minute documentary, which primarily uses its cache of pristinely restored images to tell the story of the flight of Apollo 11; from pre-launch parties to the astronauts leaving quarantine 21 days after returning to Earth.

I write this in the hope that any readers will try (if possible) to see “Apollo 11″ theatrically. Yes, it’ll most likely air on CNN sometime in the summer for the actual anniversary of the landing (it’s a CNN film, after all), but seeing it in the dark with a larger-than-life images and matching sound was probably as close to genuine time travel as I’ve yet experienced in cinema (I’m not exaggerating). This intuitively made documentary couldn’t be a better commemorative anniversary gift for the flight of Apollo 11.

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