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“One Priceless Moment”: “Apollo 11”, and the Search for a Singular Defining Narrative…

This July marked the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landings.

It was an occasion marked with much discussion and celebration. The nostalgia had arguably kicked into high gear the previous winter with Damien Chazelle’s First Man, an awards-season biopic looking at the life of Neil Armstrong. Mired in an absurd controversy, First Man failed to make as much of an impact as it might. It under-performed at the box office and ended up shut out of the big awards races. However, there were other celebrations of the landmark date. Donald Trump met with the surviving astronauts. Mike Pence used the occasion to push for a manned mission to Mars.

There was also Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11. This documentary is interesting, in large part because it eschews a lot of the conventions of these sorts of retrospective celebrations. There are no talking heads; what little exposition exists in the film is drawn from a combination of archive recordings and public materials, without any sequences of participants or experts trying to explain the footage that the audience is seeing. Indeed, a lot of Apollo 11 flows without dialogue, a sequential retelling of the moon landing stitched together from newly-discovered 70mm footage.

What is most striking, and most successful, about Apollo 11 is the fact that it captures the essence of the moon landing as much as the finer details. The intimate footage – cobbled together from dozens of sources  – offers a rare and intimate insight into the mission, but that is not the source of the documentary’s power. Apollo 11 fundamentally understands the appeal of the idea of the moon landing, particularly at this moment in time. Stitching together countless different perspectives of the same event into a singular cohesive narrative, it offers a glimpse of a rare moment where mankind was “truly one.”

Much has been written about how the late sixties haunt the present. This is true culturally, as demonstrated by films like Bad Times at the El Royale and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. However, it is also true in a broader sense, in fears of social decay and escalating tensions. Part of this is simply down to simply nostalgia and the passage of time, the fact that anniversaries arrive and stoke memories of times long past as previous generations fade into history. After all, the nineties were defined in part by half-century nostalgia for the Second World War in films like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List or The Thin Red Line.

There is also a resonance in this nostalgia. How the past is remembered reveals a lot about the present. The aspects of the past that come into focus reveal a lot about the anxieties of the current moment. That nineties wave of nostalgia for the Second World War suggested a yearning for a simpler time with more clearly defined boundaries between good and evil, that sense of moral purpose that seemed lacking in the postmodern haze of the unipolar moment at the end of history. (Tellingly, one of the biggest Second World War controversies of the nineties involved debating the morality dropping of the bomb on Japan.)

Modern nostalgia for the late sixties tends to focus on the idea of social fragmentation and collapse. This makes sense. The modern world is incredibly chaotic. People are more polarised than ever. People are also more isolated than ever. The larger monoculture seems to be eroding and collapsing. This is true in a variety of ways. Even in terms of media consumption, there are more choices than ever before. There is more media being produced than any individual could reasonably watch. This might seem like a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but media provides a shared frame of reference for social engagement.

This shared frame of reference seems to be completely collapsing. Politically, people have become increasingly entrenched; both less willing and less able to explore views outside their own. Both a consequence – and a self-perpetuating cause – of this is an increase in political radicalisation within these political spheres. This is enabled by the erosion of a larger monoculture, with people increasingly filtering their world view through the lens of sources that will reinforce their perspective and dismiss anything outside of it.

The very concept of a shared reality seems up for debate. More than ever, reality feels like three blind men in a room trying to describe an elephant. Any inconvenient facts that contradict an individual’s beliefs can be dismissed as “fake news.” There is no longer a sense of a singular objective truth that can navigated by individuals and larger society, but instead a sense that truth is in the eye of the beholder and that it need not conform to any objectively verifiable standards. After all, two people can look at the same events and construct wildly different narratives around them.

All of this suggests one of the central appeals of the lunar landing, on a cultural level. The moon landing represented a rare moment of unity at the end of a turbulent and divisive decade, even allowing for counterculture and civil rights protests to the mission. Arriving at just the right time in terms of television technology and global networking, the entire world was able to watch the mission unfolding live. Everybody around the world was able to see the same images of the same events at the same time. Even First Man, which remains tightly focused on its protagonist, pauses to acknowledge this at its climax.

This was an essential part of the messaging of the moon landing. In his publicly broadcast phone conversation with the astronauts, Richard Nixon famously boasted, “For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.” In fact, the phone call itself was another triumph of this unity and connectivity, demonstrating that a man sitting in an office in Washington, D.C. could talk in real time with an astronaut on the moon. The universe seemed a little smaller.

This had arguably always been a theme of these deep space missions. “Earthrise”, a photo taken on a mission to the moon one year earlier, was credited as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken” for offering humanity a glimpse of their planet as a single object; the photo suggested how small and how precious the planet was, how self-contained humanity’s experiences were when measured against the vast cosmos. The implication was that petty divisions did not (or should not) matter in the face of so momentous a realisation.

More than two decades later, astronomer Carl Sagan would ensure that the last photo taken by the Voyager probe was “Pale Blue Dot.” The Voyager probe spend most of its mission looking outwards, transmitting images of deep space back to scientists on Earth so as to provide mankind with a greater sense of the solar system. However, Sagan believed that there was value in offering a sense of perspective before the probe moved out of reach. Once again, the world seemed small and precious, reinforcing the idea that mankind’s differences and divisions were not insurmountable in the grand scheme of things.

The beauty of Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 lies in its understanding of this simple fact. The film is stitched together from a variety of sources, from various camera reels and recordings covering the entirety of the mission from beginning to end. This footage is cobbled together from all manner of observers; some of it comes from official sources, other parts from amateur observers, some even shot by the astronauts themselves, and some recorded using cameras in places that no human being could reach.

It is hard to overstate how impressive this is, even from a technical standpoint. The footage looks amazing, meticulously restored and upgraded to give the clearest possible image. It is a testament to the production team and to Miller himself (who served as both editor and director) that so much of Apollo 11 looks and feels like a lost classic of seventies American cinema. There are sequences in Apollo 11 that could be merged seamlessly with classics like The Right Stuff, and extended passages where Apollo 11 looks and feels as much like a beautifully crafted naturalistic narrative drama as a documentary.

Taken on their own, these sources suggest a very fractured and discordant set of perspectives. There were multiple ways to watch the moon landing. Apollo 11 spends time inside mission control during the journey, within the lunar module as the astronauts approach their destination, with the civilians camped out on the embankment opposite Cape Canaveral hosting barbecues and drinking beers. Apollo 11 is not so much about the lunar landings as it is about the variety of different ways of watching the lunar landings.

Apollo 11 serves as an interesting counterpoint to First Man. In First Man, Damien Chazelle took one of the most epic narratives of the twentieth century and focused on the man at the heart of that story, building the film around the internal life of Neil Armstrong. Apollo 11 is largely disinterested in this sort of interiority. In fact, one of the movie’s most awkward choices comes during the crew’s journey to the rocket, as the film splices in footage of what the astronauts might have been thinking about; the family that they were leaving behind to make this trip. However, this is as close as the film gets to characterisation.

Most of Apollo 11 is fixated on the act of watching. Repeatedly during the film, the camera turns on other cameras; whether onlookers turning their gaze to the other people trying to capture this moment on film or even the multiple cameras within mission control trapping one another within their shot. It is no coincidence that one of the posters of Apollo 11 is the iconic double-horizon shot that Neil Armstrong took of Buzz Aldrin. Because Armstrong was the one manning the camera, there are actually very few photos of Armstrong on the moon. However, he captures himself taking the photo in Aldrin’s reflective visor.

That shot is striking and evocative, and gets at the real beauty of Apollo 11. It is reflexive; the camera lens reflected back upon itself in the gold shine of an astronaut’s visor. The audience cannot see Buzz Aldrin’s face. Instead, they merely see the image of the man taking the picture. They not only see what Armstrong sees through the camera lens, but also what Aldrin can see through his own helmet. These two perspectives align into one. The audience can see what two men see standing on a barren rock nearly four hundred thousand miles away. And each of those men can see what the other sees.

This is perhaps a laboured metaphor, but there is some poetry in the light bouncing between the camera and the visor. Apollo 11 finds a wealth of different perspectives on a monumental human accomplishment, dozens of people groping in the dark trying to see an elephant, and finds a way to stitch those disjointed and otherwise disconnected snapshots together into an overarching panorama. There might have been millions of (maybe even a billion) eyes processing these events, but they were all experiencing one story.

Of course, it was up to every audience member to make sense of what they had seen; to determine whether it was a triumphant expression of mankind’s exceptionalism or a crass waste of public finances that could have been put to better use. However, even allowing for the (apparently increasingly common) conspiracy theories that insist that the moon landings were faked, most of those viewers accepted what they had seen. It was a singular event. Indeed, a large part of why Apollo 11 can avoid voiceover or exposition is down to how well the audience knows the story of the moon landing.

Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 is a stunning ode to that shared experience. This allows the documentary to resonate beyond the particulars of its subject matter. Most obviously, it is possible to read Apollo 11 as a broader allegory for the romantic ideal of cinema; the idea of a vast and universal experience that can be shared by a large and diverse audience scattered across space and time, wherein everybody sees the same images while being left to find their own meaning in it. However, it also feels like a nostalgic appeal for the idea of a shared monoculture in an increasingly fractured and discordant world.

Apollo 11 remembers a time when the world existed as a whole, a shared experience of a singular reality filtered through millions of different perspectives. It is strange that this remembrance feels so distant and so idealised. Fifty years ago, mankind’s reach extended nearly a quarter of a million millions to the planet’s closest celestial neighbour. These days it seems like even the concept of a shared reality is slipping from mankind’s grasp.

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