Friday, March 22, 2019

Apollo 11 Soars

That men in fragile ships crossed the gulf from the Earth to the Moon in an era when computers the size of bedroom closets could do little more than basic math seems astounding today. Apollo 11, the new documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, captures the awe and wonder of that incredible journey, 50 years in the past this summer and still, to my mind, the single greatest human achievement.

Using glorious high definition footage left neglected for years in storage, Miller covers the mission from launch to recovery--not only the ships and the astronauts, but the ground crew, and in some ways most compellingly, the vast audience of ordinary people who came in their multitudes to line the beaches of Florida for launch day. The excitement on these faces is palpable; they know they are witnesses to history, that they are watching a moment that will, if we are fortunate, live on in our collective memory for as long as our species lasts.

Miller thankfully eschews voiceover narration; he lets the images, the astronauts, the ground crew and the rumble of rockets speak for themselves. Music is used sparingly at key moments--the launch, the landing, the return to Earth--with superb effect.

Even though the mission went without a hitch, there are still many moments of high drama, particularly during the landing on the moon, when a countdown clock shows the lunar lander is rapidly running out of fuel and a computer program alarm goes off multiple times in the last seconds before landing. There are a few moments of self-effacing or near-gallows humour here and there--my favourite is probably when Buzz Aldrin reminds himself not to lock the lunar lander door on his way out to the Moon's surface.

Watching Apollo 11 now, especially on a giant IMAX screen that provides some of the scope and scale necessary to give audiences a sense of the magnitude of the story, is necessarily bittersweet. As a human being, I'm proud that hundreds of thousands of people worked together to make possible the exploration of a strange new world, an astonishing feat that proved what human beings are truly capable of. And yet, I struggle to name an accomplishment of the same spirit-lifting grandeur. Perhaps we'll find it if we manage to save our civilization from our own folly in the fight against climate change.

On the other hand, even if our species destroys itself before its time, we can remain proud of those shining days in 1969 when we took our first steps beyond the cradle of Earth and, ever so briefly, explored the universe beyond.

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