Dreaming of Space: Armstrong and Apollo 11

Apollo 11 and Armstrong join two older documentaries in making up the perfect cinematic quartet that recalls one of the most extraordinary human achievements of the 20th century. 


On an everyday basis, we carry around with us technology hundreds of times more advanced than the equipment that sent the crew of Apollo 11 to the Moon. Inside the slick exterior of our smartphones is a computer with a capacity that, in 1969, would have taken up the space of a warehouse. The digital revolution transformed the way we live our lives, for better and for worse, but to look back now on age that was mostly analogue makes the effort of thousands of scientists, technicians, mechanics, builders and all the people involved in the Apollo project all the more astonishing. 

There have been countless documentaries and TV programmes about the space missions orchestrated by NASA in the 1960s. But with the advent of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing and the release of both Apollo 11  and Armstrong, the most complete picture of this era in space exploration and the people involved in it is provided by four films: the two aforementioned new releases, along with Al Reinert’s For All Mankind (1989) and David Sington’s In the Shadow of the Moon (2007).

For All Mankind

For All Mankind

For All Mankind is the most impressionistic of the films. Reinert was given free access – as Apollo 11 director Todd Douglas Miller would be – to NASA’s vast film archive, a treasure trove of moving images shot on the ground, during research, training and take-off, to the hours filmed by astronauts in space and on the Moon. Along with editor Susan Korda, Reinert sifted through over six million feet of footage and 80 hours of interviews with astronauts. From the mid-1970s on he recorded his own interviews with the men who had travelled into space. He then spent 18 months using an optical printer to blow the footage up from the 16mm original to 35mm. And he commissioned Brian Eno to compose an accompanying soundtrack. (Bringing frequent collaborators Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno on board, Eno’s album release of the music, ‘Apollo’, has been hailed by many critics as the best of his ambient works.) 

For All Mankind, which takes its title from the wording of the plaque on the Eagle spacecraft that landed on the Moon (‘Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.’), was edited to give the impression of a single mission, beginning on Earth, traveling to the Moon, spending time on its surface and finally returning to Earth. In actuality, the film is an amalgam of all the lunar missions. This is particularly clear in the Moon surface segment. Whereas Armstrong and Aldrin spent a short time on the surface, staying close to their landing craft, subsequent missions found astronauts venturing further afield, most memorably in a lunar vehicle. 

The original release of the film in the early 1980s, comprising the extraordinary NASA footage and the atmospheric score, failed to engage with audiences. So Reinert went back to the editing room and over the next few years added voiceover commentary by the astronauts. And as the footage doesn’t tell us which mission we are watching, we are not informed which astronaut’s voice we are listening to. The effect, like Neil Armstrong’s desire to see his step on to the moon as one made by a people not an individual, gives a sense of universality not individualism. At the same time, the voices offer a very human response to the challenges of these missions. The resulting film, released in 1989 to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the first lunar landing, remains one of the most beautiful accounts of this incredible endeavour.

In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon

David Sington’s In the Shadow of the Moon puts a face to each of those voices. His film is a record of the surviving members of the Apollo missions and is one of the most comprehensive in terms of the individuals interviewed for it. Combining talking heads with footage of each stage of the missions, it is a perfect companion to Reinert’s film. It’s less artful in its construction, but Sington, a fine documentary filmmaker whose skill in getting his subjects to talk is impressive, successfully covers all areas of the missions. He even gets a superb interview with Michael Collins, the command module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission and one of the more reticent astronauts from this era. However, as all-encompassing as this film is, it is missing one key voice: Neil Armstrong. 

David Fairhead’s film fits this gap perfectly. Armstrong is the most intimate of these four documentaries. It also reaches out to the eras that presaged and followed them. Armstrong died in 2012. But his first wife, two sons and friends talk candidly about the man who, after the initial celebratory world tour, stepped away from the limelight in order for his actions to be seen within the wider context of human achievement. Fairhead previously made Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017), which looked at the work of those scientists, engineers and fellow astronauts who ensured each mission was executed to perfection, or brought back from the brink of disaster when things threatened to go wrong. He follows the same template with Armstrong, accessing a wealth of footage from across his subject’s life, from early family photos and home movies through to his last major space-related work, as one of the investigators on the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. And, like Sington’s film, Armstrong occasionally looks beyond the lunar missions, taking a temperature of the US and the world in the late 1960s. (Sington even gets Michael Collins to talk about his Air Force colleagues having to go out on sorties over Vietnam as he looks upwards and to his mission into space.) 

Armstrong

Armstrong

The figure that emerges from Fairhead’s portrait is someone who shunned the spotlight yet remained ambitious and loved a challenge, sometimes at the expense of his personal and family life. But on the space mission for which he will always be remembered, he was a level-headed commander. And he earned the admiration of his peers through his dedication and his calmness, even in the most stressful situations. 

Apollo 11 succeeds in achieving something that For All Mankind failed – it does away with voiceover narration. Miller was given access to previously unseen footage to create a thorough record of the mission. When information is required, particularly regarding the stages of the Apollo 11 journey through space, a rudimentary animation appears, which is in keeping with the era in which the film unfolds. Elsewhere, we cut between mission control, the astronauts preparing, and hundreds of thousands of people lining the perimeter of the launch area as the countdown to the launch of the Saturn V rocket begins. Matt Morton’s music is less atmospheric in the way the Enos’ and Lanois’ music is in For All Mankind. But it is incredibly effective in conveying the tension of the countdown to each crucial stage and in expressing the sheer velocity that these astronauts were traveling at. 

Apollo 11

Apollo 11

The voices we hear in the film are from the transmissions between the astronauts and mission control, alongside radio and TV broadcasts. Miller, who also edited the film, races us from one key moment to the next, until the Eagle spacecraft lands on the lunar surface. Even after that there’s still the journey home and the dangerous job of re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. And yet, amidst these precision-timed series of sequences, Miller captures a snapshot of the US in 1969. With the opening section, as cameras prowl through the crowds at Cape Canaveral and a helicopter passes overhead, Miller conveys the sense of awe amongst everyday people at the event they were witnessing. Likewise, in the control room at Houston, Miller’s editing draws out the characters of the colleagues whose excitement at what they were achieving was tempered with the knowledge that each had an essential job to do. (They include Gene Kranz, the Chief Flight Director, who was played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13 [1995], and whose general demeanour suggests his pulse rate never fluctuated, no matter what problem arose.) 

If Apollo 11 is being regarded as the most comprehensive film account of the first successful lunar mission, its real worth can be found when it is seen alongside these other documentaries. What moments they share are enriched by the unique elements that each film possesses and together they highlight the breathtaking achievement of the Apollo missions.

Armstrong plays in Curzon cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 12 June

Apollo 11 plays in Curzon cinemas from Friday 28 June

For All Mankind and In the Shadow of the Moon are both available on DVD and Blu-