Review: Restored Footage and Intimacy Bring Apollo 11 Mission To Life

One of the unquestionable documentary highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was director Todd Douglas Miller’s (Dinosaur 13) latest, Apollo 11, a narration-free account of the NASA mission that finally landed human beings on the moon. The film isn’t as much a by-the-numbers doc that you might see on The History Channel, but more of a fly-on-the-wall piece of storytelling that captures both the expected highlights of the mission and some of the more peripheral (but no less fascinating) events going on around Cape Canaveral and inside the capsule (populated by commander Neil Armstrong and pilots Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins).

Apollo 11 Image courtesy of Neon

Putting aside any sense of looking back, Apollo 11 is more about making the audience feel like it’s going through these events as they happened—some even in real time—whether it’s about capturing life inside the lunar lander or on the ground with the thousands of civilians watching the launch around the carnival-like outskirts of Cape Canaveral. The audio that supplies most of the information in the movie is supplied by Mission Control, the astronauts on the mission, and the occasional reporters on the ground covering it all. One of the highlights of the film is never-before-seen 70mm footage of portions of the mission, which makes the fact that Apollo 11 is opening this Friday exclusively in IMAX theaters (including the one on Navy Pier), before opening everywhere on March 8, all the more exciting.

There’s no getting around the fact that the beautifully restored footage is enough of a reason to see the movie, but in the wake of last year’s far too unseen First Man, the portrait here of Armstrong in particular seems a great deal more easy going and loose than Ryan Gosling’s portrayal. The film doesn’t give us much in terms of the backstory of the astronauts (we’ve seen those movies, so it doesn’t seem necessary) or the nearly decade-long journey to get to what was science fiction to most.

The film opens just a few days before launch and never looks back, and it’s that immediacy that makes it all feel so of the now, and less about history. Apollo 11 is vibrant, full of energy, and an absolutely essential telling of the momentous events, which are unveiled in a way that makes is all feel thrilling and alive.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.