Monday, July 01, 2019

Apollo 11 – letting the first manned mission to the moon tell its own story (QFT until 11 July)

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon is just weeks away. While I’m not old enough to have been alive when lunar module Eagle touched down on the Moon’s surface, NASA’s space flights were the focus of displays and exhibits at childhood visits to Armagh Planetarium.

There’s no single authoritative and complete account of the mission. Last year’s First Man provided a window into the character of test pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong. Nineteen years ago, The Dish told the quirky story of how pictures from the mission were beamed – or nearly, not beamed – around the Earth.

In recent weeks, it has been fun to dip into BBC World Service’s 13 Minutes to the Moon podcast which uses the final descent as its hook to explore hair-raising moments on that voyage as well as the build-up to the mission over the previous decade. Recommended listening.

Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary Apollo 11 constrains itself to the period of the launch until the crew arrive back on Earth and sit out 18 long days in quarantine. Never guilty of under-documenting anything, NASA’s film footage from numerous angles in the launch and mission control rooms and from the Saturn rocket, command and lunar modules is combined with the 30-track tapes of voice recordings.

There are no distracting talking heads. No looking back through halcyon spectacles. The complexity and significance of the mission is allowed to speak for itself. Split screen effects allow different perspectives to be compared. Simple graphics signify increasing speed and convey where we are in the timeline.

As we walk through the stages of the mission, Matt Morton’s excellent sound track provides the only external interference, setting a sense of tension and manipulating emotion as it pumps out booming heartbeats during the launch, and piano/string sequences as the Eagle heads back to dock with Columbia. The crew’s portable tape player supplies John Stewart’s Mother Country and the extraordinarily-apt lyric “just a lot of people doing the best they could”.

Rows of men (reckoned to be just one woman among 500 men) dressed in white shirts and ties (except a few extroverts with a sense of occasion wearing bowties) sit behind banks of warning lights, green on black monitors and sensor printers. Audience chests tighten and the cinema barely seems to breathe as we discover the three astronauts are being strapped into the rocket while a couple of engineers use wrenches to fix a leak somewhere below them on the huge structure.

Moments of mission audio jump out, phrases like Buzz Aldrin’s expressive comment “magnificent desolation” and his alter understatement “it’s been a long day”, as well as Neil Armstrong speaking of the “symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown”.

Apollo 11 offers a fresh look at a well-understood space mission. The over-familiar stock of photography is replaced with multiple angles of moving images from inside the heart of the mission, some of the footage being used for the first time.

There’s no subtitling, conveying the sense of sometimes garbled audio links that left experts on the ground fitting incomplete information together to understand the mission status. The panicky significance of the 1201 and 1202 program alarms flagged up during the lunar descent is somewhat lost to the inexpert cinema audience who are watching in real time. Armstrong’s manual search for a safe landing place is the subject of a quick discussion after they are safely landed.

In some ways, the hype-less Apollo 11 film underplays the drama of the mission. The filmmakers trust that the implicit danger and the obvious dedication of the NASA staff and Apollo crew are sufficient to carry the 93 minute film. Their bet pays off with a documentary that still enthrals and excites.

Apollo 11 is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre as well as Dundonald Omniplex.

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