DirectorTodd Douglas Miller
Release Date(s)2019 (May 14, 2019)
Studio(s)CNN Films/Statement Pictures (Neon/Universal)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D-
If you’re like me, and are either a spaceflight historian or enthusiast or both, you probably think you’ve seen every piece of footage there is of NASA’s legendary Apollo 11 Moon landing. I certainly thought I had. I’ve viewed all the previously released film and video, heard hundreds of hours of audio recordings and interviews, and read all the books. But Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, produced by CNN Films and distributed by Neon, is a genuine revelation—a kind of miracle that I never imagined possible.
The film is constructed from 100% archival footage, shot by or with the permission of NASA, during the Apollo 11 mission. But the wonder of it stems from the fact that the filmmakers discovered (with the help of the National Archives) some 165 reels of large format 70mm film, some of it shot in 1969 by Theo Kamecke (in 5-perf 65mm Todd-AO format) for a film called Moonwalk One (originally backed but later abandoned by MGM). Fully 61 of those reels were directly related to Apollo 11, most of which hadn’t been seen in decades. (You can read more about this discovery here at Vanity Fair and here at my friend Robert Pearlman’s CollectSpace website.) The U.S. Government also had rare 10-perf 70mm engineering film relevant to the mission. And of course, abundant 35mm and 16mm film footage was shot by NASA, much of the latter by the actual Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin—during the mission.
In terms of the large format footage, I’m trying to think of another documentary discovery that would be equivalent, and all I can come up with is this: It’s as if the combat camera footage from the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944—notoriously lost when a soldier carrying it back to ships offshore on D-Day accidentally dropped the bag of film into the English Channel—hadn’t actually been lost but just misplaced in a government archive somewhere.
Finding this overlooked Apollo 11 footage means that we have a whole new perspective on aspects of this mission that none of us has ever seen before. And the clarity and quality is remarkable. Among the cache of footage are views of the crawler transporter carrying the Saturn V rocket to the launch pad, thousands of Americans gathering around the space center to view the launch, notables like Johnny Carson, Isaac Asimov, Jack Benny, and President Lyndon Johnson in the VIP stands, new views of the rocket on the pad, footage of the hundreds of engineers and controllers in the Launch Control Center, and views of the recovery operations at sea on the USS Hornet. It’s a treasure trove.
What Miller and his team have done is to marry that footage with the best of the previous documentary film to tell the story of the mission, from the arrival of the rocket on the pad and the astronauts suiting up for launch until the moment they emerge from their period of bio-isolation after the mission. But there’s no narrator—through the entire film, you’re hearing the voices of the actual astronauts, mission controllers, and members of the press (Walter Cronkite, in particular) who participated in the mission. This is thanks in large part to a second fortuitous source, which is NASA’s recent release of the “30 track” audio recordings from the mission, newly restored by audio technicians and volunteers from the public. These recordings encompass some 11,000 hours of previously unheard audio that includes 60 different members of the Mission Control team. That audio has been cleaned up and matched to all of the existing footage.
With all of this audio and film assembled for the first time, it’s as if you’re a fly on the wall for the entire mission. There are no visual effects. All that’s been added are simple graphics to explain the mission timeline and what events are upcoming. As you’re watching some of them, like the actual landing on the moon, you also have subtle on-screen text that shows altitude, fuel remaining, and the like. This is enhanced by an ambient score by Matt Morton composed almost entirely of instruments available at the time (with the addition of John Stewart’s Mother Country, a popular recording at the time that was played by the astronauts via cassette tape during the mission). The result is a completely immersive viewing experience, offering fresh and deeper-than-ever insights on one of the most important events in human history. It’s almost hard to imagine that we ever thought we understood the mission fully before seeing this documentary.
The new Blu-ray from Neon and Universal presents the film in 1080p HD in the 2.20:1 aspect ratio as seen in IMAX screenings. It has the very slightly subdued color palette of vintage film, but obviously the clarity of the large format footage is stunning. Honestly, in the film’s IMAX screenings the clarity hit you like a wall. That’s due to the fact that much this footage was scanned in 8K and 16K. The effect is a little bit diminished on Blu-ray by the fact that this is only 1080p, but it’s still damned impressive for mere HD. You just can’t help wishing you were looking at a 4K Ultra HD image instead (and it’s a real shame there isn’t one yet). Contrast is generally good and fine detail and texturing are sublime. The 35mm and 16mm footage exhibits more grain obviously (the most is seen in the 16mm footage shot in space), but that’s exactly as it should be. This is a reference-quality image for a documentary film on Blu-ray.
Primary audio on Blu-ray is offered in a lossless English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. That’s actually a nice surprise, because the back of the package indicates that it’s only 5.1 Dolby Digital. Now, keep in mind this is a documentary with audio composed almost entirely from vintage recordings, so don’t expect a lot of sonic wiz-bang. What you get is mostly front and center, with the surrounds used for ambience. The exceptions are moments where the score really kicks in and of course the Saturn V launch. But the dialogue audio is largely clear and clean, with the exception of radio crackle, crosstalk, and the like inherent in the original recordings. This Blu-ray audio is certainly reflective of the theatrical sound experience. And the Blu-ray does include optional subtitles in English SDH. This is very handy for moments when the astronauts and mission controllers are all talking at once, when com channels overlap or are indistinct, and when jargon or engineering terminology is being used.
Sadly, there are only two extras on this Blu-ray, neither of which is especially substantial. You get, in full HD:
- Apollo 11: Discovering the 65mm (2:54)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:53)
The featurette is interesting, of course, but extremely brief and it’s already been posted online. It also barely scratches the surface of my interest in this film and its production. The trailer is fine too, but it's a pittance compared to the kind of content that should be on this release. The lack of an audio commentary by the filmmakers is especially frustrating, as they’ve had plenty to say during the film’s festival and press tour. And again, where’s the 4K Ultra HD version of this film that its large format source material demands and deserves? There is, at least, a code for Movies Anywhere Digital version on a paper insert. But my disappointment remains.
The lack of extras aside, Apollo 11 is a singular piece of documentary filmmaking, nothing less than 50-year-old history made real and immediate right before your eyes in a thrilling 93-minute experience. Honestly, I’ve never seen the like of it. I was a year and a half old when this mission happened, but I’ve studied it my entire life. Now I feel as if I was there in person. If you loved the late Al Reinert’s For All Mankind (reviewed on Blu-ray here), Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (reviewed on 4K here), Tom Hanks’ From the Earth to the Moon, (shockingly, finally coming soon to Blu-ray), or Damien Chazelle’s recent First Man (also reviewed on 4K)… trust me: You’ve seen nothing yet. There is simply no better way to honor and celebrate the accomplishment of the first Moon landing than by watching Apollo 11 on the biggest screen you can.
I just wish I could do so in 4K UHD.
- Bill Hunt