Review: 'Apollo 11' a celebration of greatness

Documentary uses footage from the moon landing to toast to one of humankind's greatest achievements

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
Michael Collins in "Apollo 11."

In 1969, we put a man on the moon. 

We are so used to that fact that saying it now hardly provokes a reaction. The genius of the awe-inspiring "Apollo 11" is that it takes viewers back to that time when landing on the moon was not only a dream, it was a goal that we were going to achieve, and it makes you believe in the wonderment of space anew.   

"Apollo 11" is compiled entirely of footage from that time, of control rooms full of rows and rows of men in white short sleeve dress shirts sitting in front of monitors and radar screens, and of spectators who gathered in public places to watch a space ship blast off into outer space.

There are no voiceovers, no narration and no interviews, and only minimal on-screen graphics. It's as if director Todd Douglas Miller found a box of old NASA home movies and assembled it on his own, making the calculated decision to let the footage speak for itself. 

A scene from "Apollo 11."

And that footage, visually crisp and clean as a whistle, tells an exhilarating tale of the ingenuity and hard work it took to send three men hurtling through space to the moon and back. They did it with science and mathematics and equations, at a time when computers the size of entire rooms didn't have the the processing power of the phones we now carry in our pockets. But look what they were able to do back then, and think about what we do now. It's enough to make liking a photo of Selena Gomez on Instagram feel existentially crushing.

The film has a slick, sleek, approachable look, streamlined like the style of the time. It doesn't feel dated, it's fresh, and it champions the design of NASA's rockets and the control centers that monitored them. 

"Apollo 11" comes several months after "First Man," which dramatized the moon mission and in many ways fell flat. We see the moon landing here, and the reality is much more thrilling and heart-racing than Damien Chazelle's technically proficient recreation; all the shaky camera work and pounding sound effects can't take the place of watching the real thing, with fuel running dangerously low and the moon surface fast approaching.

A scene from "Apollo 11."

"Apollo 11" doesn't emphasize astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins; they're just the point people on a team of hundreds. The movie is a celebration of teamwork and brainpower and dreams and humanity, and the possibilities and prosperity of our existence. It's a glorious ode to where we've been, and it makes you question how far we've come today. Not bad for a bunch of 50-year-old home movies. 

'Apollo 11'


Rated G: Nothing objectionable

Running time: 93 minutes