Movie Review: ‘Apollo 11’ is a Stunning Feat of Archival Documentary

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CREDIT: NEON

Starring: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: G for Gravity Defiance

Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Limited)

Documentaries featuring restored archival footage are having a moment. Peter Jackson’s box office hit They Shall Not Grow Old got in the trenches of World War I. The Oscar-nominated short A Night at the Garden uncovered a 1939 Nazi rally in New York City. And now Apollo 11 puts us right alongside the crew of the same-named 1969 lunar mission. As a technical achievement, it is stunning and confounding. Every frame is made up of 70 mm film footage that was shot at the time but never previously released to the public. The richness and clarity of the visuals are breathtaking. How it all remained a secret and in such good condition is surely beyond most mortals’ comprehension.

The you-are-there sensibility is so thorough that there is even time to check out the snack bar set up for the crowds gathered to watch the launch. In that regard, it is reminiscent of the seminal 1960 Direct Cinema doc Primary. But it differs insofar as Apollo 11 director Todd Douglas Miller adds a few showy editing flourishes. Occasionally he arranges a series of shots in comic book-style panel arrangements, calling to mind Ang Lee’s Hulk, of all things. Also adding to the mix is Matt Morton’s intensely looming score. I like both of these elements on their own, but I wonder if they are saturating the already plenty powerful raw footage. But no matter what, the awe and beauty on display is unmistakably evident, serving as reassurance that humanity can still find inspiration by looking up to the stars.

Apollo 11 is Recommended If You Like: Primary, They Shall Not Grow Old, First Man

Grade: 4 out of 5 Launch Sequences

This Is a Movie Review: ‘First Man’ Captures All the Stresses of Neil Armstrong’s Trip to the Moon

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CREDIT: Daniel McFadden/Universal

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Wigham, Brian d’Arcy James, Pablo Schreiber, Olivia Hamilton, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running Time: 141 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for the Psychological Fallout of Preparing for Space Travel

Release Date: October 12, 2018

There are a few things I want to say about First Man, Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic. First of all, it’s the best I’ve ever seen a film portray the stresses of going up into space. That certainly is not to say that the likes of The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 have made takeoff and its aftermath look like a cakewalk, but in focusing on one individual, First Man burrows in and exposes so many extra levels of intensity. We’re right there with Neil as he staggers to the bathroom following a stint in a g-force simulator, and when he endures multiple tragedies. This is a man who must deal with the accidental deaths of multiple colleagues as well as the loss of a young daughter from disease. Accordingly, Ryan Gosling plays him as a man wearing the weight of the world on his face for basically 2 hours straight.

Next, I have plenty to say about Claire Foy as Neil’s wife, Janet. She gives a hell of a performance, displaying the sort of fiery emotion and desperate toughness that you can’t look away from. She is definitely enough of her own person that we can clearly see her as more than just a wife and mother. But this is very much Neil’s film with everyone else orbiting around him, and as such, Foy is playing The Wife. One example of such gender disparity between lead and supporting roles is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it is part of a Hollywood history that favors men’s over women’s stories. This is an issue that is better discussed than pontificated upon, so please, let’s continue to have these conversations. And let’s not place too much blame on First Man in the meantime, but instead work to expand what stories are valued by the historical record.

Finally, a note on some technical matters. Composer Justin Hurwitz triumphs with a quiet, but forceful score that gives First Man the stamina it needs to maintain its intensity over 2-plus hours. It is a bit of a lullaby that plants the expanse of space right into our souls in a way similar to how it surely felt for Armstrong. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography, on the other hand, while similarly technically accomplished, is more than a little exhausting. A constant (subtly vibrating) handheld setup is just too much to bear for such a significant running time. That’s just one little bit of too much intensity in a film that’s otherwise so acutely calibrated.

First Man is Recommended If You Like: Intimate Biopics

Grade: 3.75 of 5 G Forces