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‘Apollo 11’ Is a Time Capsule — And a Warning About How Far We Haven’t Come Since

The director of the acclaimed new documentary about the 1969 moon landing discusses conspiracy theories, NASA’s old-school masculinity and what it will take for humanity to ever doing something as momentous again

Everyone has seen footage of the Apollo 11 mission — the manned flight to the moon that resulted in Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969 becoming the first human to walk the lunar surface. Begun as a pledge by then-President John F. Kennedy, who in 1961 boldly declared that Americans would land on the moon by the end of the 1960s, Apollo 11 was a culmination of years of sacrifice, courage, tragedy and hard, hard work. They teach all that in history classes.

But even if you think you know the story, you may still not be prepared for Apollo 11, the stunning, nerve-racking new documentary that recreates the mission using nothing but archival materials shot by NASA at the time. Refurbished and restored, and including excerpts from more than 11,000 hours of audio recordings, the footage gives us a fresh, vivid way to experience the mission, from the final days of pre-launch prep through the moon landing and concluding with the safe return of astronauts Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Eschewing modern-day interviews — even the film’s soundtrack only uses instruments that existed during the era — Apollo 11 brings the past to gripping life, amplifying what was so wondrous, thrilling and risky about that historic expedition.

The man responsible for this massive cinematic undertaking is documentarian Todd Douglas Miller, who previously made Dinosaur 13, about the 1990 discovery of a complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, which only brought misery and heartbreak to the paleontologists who uncovered it. Miller, who also edited and produced Apollo 11 (which expands across the country this Friday after an exclusive IMAX run), was happy to talk to me about the laborious research and film re-scanning required to pull off this feat technically. But I was more interested in Apollo 11’s underlying themes and issues — how an American triumph from 50 years ago still resonates with future generations while simultaneously looming over them like a dark shadow.

And so, during a phone call last week, Miller explained to me why the moon mission was partly political theater, discussed whether America has lost its ambition in the last half-century and detailed what the future of space exploration might look like. (Hint: It’ll be inspired by something really terrible on this planet.)

There are lots of good reasons to make a film about the Apollo 11 mission, but I was curious if there was any part of you that was drawn to the patriotism of the story.
Not really, I just wanted to tell a very compelling story. It was more about just accuracy above all, so I knew that a natural byproduct of that would be certain things — it’s one of those films where people can watch it and get a lot out of it.

Whether or not [Apollo 11] is patriotic, I think is open to interpretation. Although, having seen the film now a million times — we had a lot of Canadians and Englishmen working on the film — I think you definitely get that sense of patriotism. But it certainly wasn’t the intention. I like to pride myself on being a student of history, and certainly of cinema, and I think you can’t make a film about the Apollo program, and specifically Apollo 11, without it being patriotic.

You mentioned wanting to get the “accuracy” right — for the last 50 years, we’ve had to hear from conspiracy theorists who are convinced we never went to the moon.
Yeah, I mean, there’s always going to be that certain set of the population [that insists that] there was hundreds of thousands of people spread across decades that conspired to make this up, spread across tens of thousands of companies worldwide. I think that’s a lot more interesting than just saying we never went there.

Actually, the great thing about humanity is we’re a very diverse species, and we all have a lot of different opinions and we all have a lot of different viewpoints. But personally, I think [those conspiracies] diminish the efforts of so many people, and really diminishes the ultimate sacrifice that the astronauts paid with their lives — and just not them, but also the contractors and volunteers. So when Buzz Aldrin punches those people in the face, I kind of understand where that comes from, for sure. [laughs]

Last year we had First Man, a biopic that tried to get to the root of who Neil Armstrong was. Apollo 11 isn’t a biopic, obviously, and is more concerned with the overall mission. But were you interested in sketching these people so that we got a sense of what made them tick?
There were moments where you’d see individuals portrayed [in the movie], but to me they always represented us — whether they were the crowds during the launch and prelaunch sequence or it was the astronauts in the suiting-up rooms.

One of my really “wow” moments with the footage was the suiting-up shots before the launch. You just see the weight of what they’re about to do written on [the astronauts’] faces — and that’s juxtaposed with [footage] from three days earlier, during a dry run when they’re doing the exact same thing, but they’re joking around. Reality hasn’t really hit them — they’re still kind of in training mode. Neil clearly had a haircut in between those three days [laughs] but just the look on their faces — how young they were, how they represented all of us and they were doing this thing. It’s the old adage that a picture is [worth] a thousand words.

Seeing that imagery, you didn’t have to get into their backstory — you knew it already. You knew that they represented us and they represented something larger than themselves. Whether it was Neil’s face in the suiting-up room or some random person sipping a Busch watching the launch with his son, they were us.

So I always had kind of this collective approach — and that went for the Mission Control guys as well. It wasn’t just one guy — they were in teams. I always thought Gene Kranz was just up for 24 hours a day for nine days, but there were other flight controllers working as a team in various shifts, and the [teams] were all color-coded, which I found fascinating. So it was always the intention to highlight that more than the individuals.

It’s hard not to notice all the white men in the control room and throughout the mission prep. I think there’s a total of one woman in Apollo 11 who isn’t an astronaut’s wife. This was a different era, of course, but did NASA really have the best and brightest working on Apollo 11?
I think it’s reflective on society as a whole back then. Certainly NASA could have done more, but they still were very forward-thinking.

There’s a few really good stories that came about in our research I certainly wasn’t aware of. Coming off the heels of ’68 [and the assassinations of] Bobby Kennedy and certainly Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy had taken up the torch of the Poor People’s Campaign, and they had camped out the summer of ‘69 before the launch on the lawn of the White House. They had taken a contingent down to the [launch] pad and had protested down there: “Why are we spending so much money on the space program when we need to be helping poor people?”

Thomas Paine, the director of NASA came out and met them and said, “We hear what you’re talking about — we understand, we sympathize with you. We’re going to try to do everything we can to listen and to be there standing shoulder-to-shoulder.” And to his credit, he met with them. And there’s a great segment — it was actually broadcast on ABC News at the time — where Paine invited [Abernathy] into the VIP section, and they watched the launch. And Abernathy, after seeing the launch of the Saturn V, said, “This day is about the space program. We can protest another day, but that’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.” It was a great moment where a lot of people there in the VIP section had bonded over that.

You mentioned the woman in the firing room at Cape Kennedy. There were actually two females that we wanted to highlight in the film. The first was JoAnn Morgan: She was the first engineer at what was called Cape Kennedy at the time. During Apollo 11, it was the first time she was in the firing room, and she had this very important role. She ended up with a 43-year career at NASA. She’s retired, and still alive today down in Florida.

The other woman was a 25-year-old mathematician named Poppy Northcutt who worked in the backroom at Mission Control. In subsequent Apollo missions, she actually worked in the front room with all the flight controllers. But back then, on 11, she was in the backroom. And there’s a great moment that we discovered in some of the unheard audio — she is tasked with finding out the return trajectory and dealing with the apogee of a certain parabola. Flight control can’t figure out why their map’s off. And she basically schools them on why their map is wrong and why hers is right. It’s a great moment and it lasts five minutes. We tried to integrate it into the film — we have no footage of her.

Also, there was an African-American man — you always see footage of one guy, and you think he’s just a random person. Well, in my research, he actually had a very important job. He worked on spacecraft analysis from one of the backrooms, and Gene Kranz and [Clifford] Charlesworth would communicate with him, because him and his team were responsible for monitoring radiation levels within the command module. Before they went to bed every day, the astronauts had Geiger counters, and they gave their radiation levels to him. And there were all these satellites around the world that were monitoring solar flares, and he was in charge of those — if there was a solar flare that was going to cause any harm to the spacecraft, he could monitor those and give a heads-up to the command module to reorient itself.

And the last one is an Egyptian Muslim, Farouk El-Baz. He was an independent contractor, but he worked for NASA and was in charge of the landing sites. So it was a diverse group of people that were given really important tasks.

The end of Apollo 11 left me feeling melancholy — not because of anything that happened in the film, but because America hasn’t achieved anything as momentous since. It’s almost as if our best days are behind us.
Having made a dinosaur film, I’ve spent a lot of time in the field with paleontologists looking at fossils in the ground at night, and seeing stars, and just knowing that some of that light that’s traveling to meet that fossil in the ground has traveled as long as however long that fossil’s been in the ground — sometimes tens of millions of years. So I tend to think of things in geological time. From a scientific standpoint, I think that it’s pretty miraculous what the human race has been able to accomplish in a short amount of time, in geological terms.

But in practical terms, we need to get off this planet if we’re going to survive. It’s the Stephen Hawking theory of survival: If we want to survive as a species and outlive the Earth, we’re going to have to get out into the universe. I think the sooner we do that, the better off we are.

You include this incredible audio between the astronauts and Mission Control during the flight, which features a lot of wisecracks and smart-ass responses. Amazing to think that, during something this stressful, those guys had any sense of humor.
The majority of that humor comes from Michael Collins. His first book, Carrying the Fire, is one of my favorite books written by an astronaut. It’s written by himself, too; he was one of the rare astronauts who actually wrote. His humor comes across in that very much. And then having met him and worked with him on this film, he’s a humorous guy — that’s his personality.

But it’s also the camaraderie that existed between those guys — and the fact that they were doing such dangerous things. Not to psychoanalyze it, but humor did play a part in probably calming their nerves for what they were doing. If you think that you’re flying in a tin can with two other guys in the middle of the vacuum of space, it might be a little mind-blowing. So humor could be an effective release for that stress.

Apollo 11 is almost a time capsule for a certain type of guy. When I watched the movie, I thought of my dad or my grandparents in terms of men who just get the job done — those generations of no-nonsense masculinity.
There was a big difference between the Mercury astronauts and what ultimately were the Apollo astronauts, who came from the Gemini program. The Mercury guys were test pilots: “Let’s strap ‘em in something and then shoot ‘em [into space].” The Apollo guys were aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, they all went to college. Most of them had fought in the Korean War with either the Air Force or the Navy. So they [had] what the Mercury guys had, but they had a little bit more of an educational background. They were a little bit more cerebral — they were certainly more philosophical than the Mercury guys.

But to your point, there was a great scene in the movie, one of my favorites, where the landing happens, and we cut back to Charles Duke and the guys at Mission Control. And there’s that moment where they haven’t gotten the word that the Eagle has landed yet. [After they get the word], the flight surgeon, Charles Berry, stands up and [pumps] his big fist in the air. And Deke Slayton, who was in charge of all the astronauts, who was a Mercury-era pilot — everybody looked up to him, he was the dean of the astronaut corps — he’s sitting right next to Charlie Duke. He puts his hand up to calm everybody down: This isn’t the moment for celebration just yet — we need to make sure these guys are safe.

As he’s doing that, the camera pans out. If you look closely, he was actually smoking a cigarette the entire time. And as he gives the command for everybody to settle down, he takes a drag from his cigarette. He puts it out in the ashtray. And I just thought, “That’s our fathers and grandfathers, the kind of people they were.” That steely kind of nerve — that “just get it done” kind of mentality. It certainly encapsulated Deke Slayton in that moment.

The moon landing happened, in large part, because President Kennedy wanted it to happen — he basically staked his reputation on it. Such an undertaking seems to require a combination of political will and scientific curiosity, doesn’t it? You have to have both.
Certainly, all of that has to come together in order for it to be successful. The motivations behind that initial push are questioned ad nauseam by historians, but I’d like to think that, in the name of science, we could have the will to do that. The reality is we need the political will to be able to do that. John F. Kennedy said in front of everybody that we need to get this done — obviously, it was politically motivated, and we have the two letters that surfaced, even when he was still alive, [where he said] he really didn’t believe in it. He thought it might be a waste, but he really needed the political capital at the time. They were getting their teeth kicked in by the Russians in the space race.

But I think there’s going to be some sort of thing that happens in the future where [space exploration] is going to be a necessity, and just not a political or scientific endeavor. It’s going to be a survival thing: “We have to do it.” I hope that doesn’t happen in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetime. But think of what NASA is doing today, which is climate science and analyzing what’s happening to the Earth. It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sit on — just having that data from a scientific standpoint is very, very important.

There’s an old adage: We had to go to the Moon to discover the Earth. And seeing the images of how fragile [Earth] is — whether it’s in my movie or anyone else’s — it always has an impression on me. It makes me reflect on the necessity to get out there.