Documentary Releases: Apollo 11 - The IMAX Experience (2019) - Reviewed

The Apollo 11 NASA spaceflight mission which landed astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the Moon on July 20th, 1969, remains the moment the world heard the words ‘that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ and the course of human history was changed forever.  Decades later, the monumental achievement in science and innovation continues to inspire dramatizations and documentaries chronicling the legendary event.  Just last year, even, the film world saw Damien Chazelle’s big budget First Man with Ryan Gosling portraying Neil Armstrong embarking on the historic mission.  

For years, the definitive cinematic treatment of the Apollo 11 mission was Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary film For All Mankind which for many will always be the most comprehensive visual portrait of the mission.  That is until recently when filmmaker Todd Douglas Miller presented his 2019 IMAX documentary Apollo 11 which contained previously unseen 70mm footage of the mission as well as newly discovered archival 35mm and 16mm film.  Produced by CNN Films and playing for one week only, the aptly named Apollo 11 presents the legendary accomplishment in space exploration as you’ve never seen or heard it before!  To call the unearthed footage awe inspiring is putting it mildly!

Framed at the native 65mm ratio of 2.20:1 with a number of scenes with the camera moving about stabilized for a clearer perspective, the film was shot using Todd-AO cameras which were previously developed for big screen musicals such as Oklahoma! and Around the World in 80 Days.  Whether or not the footage shot on location with the high-resolution film cameras was intended to be part of a Cinerama documentary film ala Windjammer or Cinerama Holiday remains to be seen.  That said, the previously locked away material has been excavated and restored to pristine condition, providing modern filmgoers and historians a glimpse back into the past that has never been clearer or more luminous to the naked eye than it has now. 

After garnering the footage from the National Archives and Records Administration in conjunction with NASA, a massive effort to restore the footage went underway.  Using special climate-controlled vans to safely transport the footage to the laboratories to begin the transfer process, the makers then waded through over 11,000 hours of audio records and almost as many hours of televised videotape.  The effort is clearly painstaking but not in vain, as the end result truly is breathtaking even if some of it is familiar to the viewer. 

Augmenting the ‘you are there’ experience the footage in IMAX puts you in is a wildly innovative sound design that puts you the listener on Merritt Island, Florida and makes you feel as though you’re witnessing the launch in real time.  In an unusual strive for authenticity, the film’s electronic score by Matt Morton utilized instruments and technology that would have only been available to musicians at the time of the mission.  While the effort may go unnoticed among most listeners, that the makers went the extra mile for that little attention to detail is remarkable on its own right. 

Much like the recently released WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, the documentary film presents a crystal-clear window into the past using modern technology and preexisting archival materials to paint a picture people didn’t think possible.  While presenting many details and minutiae, the central aim of both documentaries is to create an experience for the viewer to place them within the shoes of the subjects onscreen.  You don’t simply watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin embark on the barrier breaking spaceflight, you’re right there with them every step of the way.  A testament to the capabilities of modern film preservation processes and dedicated to the mission that propelled mankind into the cosmos, Apollo 11 is an indelible cinematic journey for viewers young and old and is among the very best things currently playing in movie theaters. 


- Andrew Kotwicki