A new documentary being released 50 years after the Apollo 11 mission shows it like you’ve never seen it before.
Remember “First Man”?
Last awards season, Ryan Gosling’s big-budget Neil Armstrong biopic and expected Oscar heavyweight got lost in space, picking up just one technical trophy for best visual effects. Many prognosticators blamed the drama’s disappointing awards haul on its poor box office ($44.9 million), which may have been dented by controversy around the film’s seeming omission of the American flag planting on the moon in 1969.
While the movie does show the flag planted firmly in the lunar surface, the physical act itself is never shown – a decision by director Damien Chazelle to focus on Armstrong’s “solitary moments on the moon,” he explained. But conservative politicians including President Donald Trump decried the choice, spawning petitions and Twitter hashtags to boycott the film.
One person who didn’t understand the outrage was “Apollo 11” director Todd Douglas Miller, whose stunning new documentary (in IMAX theaters now, expands Friday to theaters nationwide) re-creates the eight-day expedition using newly unearthed footage and audio recordings from the National Archives.
“That sequence on the lunar surface in ‘First Man’ is incredible – I was blown away when I saw it,” Miller says. “Obviously, that whole controversy was completely overblown. It’s ridiculous. And by the way, the flag is probably in that film more than it is in ours.”
But it’s hard to believe that anyone will take issue with Miller’s second-by-second breakdown of Armstrong planting the flag. The iconic moment is depicted in detail using photos taken by astronaut Buzz Aldrin and footage captured by the lunar module. A recording of Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” speech plays over the scene, before a grainy video cuts in of President Nixon’s congratulatory phone call to the astronauts as they stand by the flag.
Miller was in no way swayed by the “First Man” backlash when it came to deciding how to edit together the scene.
“After the landing, there are several significant things that happened and we were just following that timeline,” Miller says. “Certainly the most documented part (of the mission) was the lunar excursion, so we had everything available from all the TV networks, film footage that Buzz was shooting out of the lunar module, still photography, and then all the mission control things that were happening at the same time. It took us a long time to get that all together, and then creatively, chopping it all down to make it an exciting thing.”
The documentary repeatedly drives home the massive scale of the Apollo 11 operation, with extensive footage showing thousands of NASA employees on the ground working in control rooms at Cape Canaveral and the space center in Houston. It also gets at how the mission united the country, drawing enormous crowds of ordinary citizens to watch the spacecraft launch on July 16, 1969, and later welcome home astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Michael Collins on July 24.
Miller ends the film with a speech given by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, in which he famously said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
“I don’t think you can tell the story of Apollo 11 without feeling a sense of unity, a sense of patriotism and just what it is to be human. It is the single crowning achievement of the human species,” Miller says. “The way Kennedy leveled with the public” and encouraged them to be bold was “just a great rallying cry. So I always knew I wanted to end the film with that.”
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