• An Oxford Historian

Apollo 11: A Review

★★★★★

Apollo 11 provides a breath-taking look back at the mission to put a man on the moon. Composed of remastered contemporary footage, there is no way to get closer to the people who made this scientific achievement a reality. It is a master-class in the making of historical documentaries.


The world has fallen out of love with space. The final frontier no longer dominates the collective imagination in the same way it did in the 1960s. Our astronauts are not bold explorers but billionaires with nothing better to do, looking for publicity stunts. That loss of love is partly a result of the dismantlement of the nationalism that lay behind the space-race and, don't get me wrong, fewer proxy-wars is a good thing. I'll admit this is a slightly strange documentary for me to review: early medievalists rarely have anything particularly enlightening to say about space travel. But when I chanced upon it


It's very easy to make a bad documentary. Cheesy voice-overs are particularly grating, and you can always tell when they were added soullessly over the top of footage in a recording studio. Flashy graphics, too many cuts away to 'experts', wild spurious claims - these are the trappings of a conceptually noisy, and therefore ineffective, documentary. Apollo 11 fights against this noise and, in returning to stripped-down basics, is an absolute master-class in documentary film-making.

There is no voice-over here, just the voices of those who made the mission possible. The visuals are allowed to talk for themselves. And fundamentally, Apollo 11 is a beautiful documentary. Through some technical wizardry, original footage has been remastered and the visuals are absolutely mindblowing - the colours pop and everything is so incredibly sharp. We're used to seeing early space missions in blurry definition, and that helps with a process of distancing from the events - a compartmentalisation of the footage as 'the past'. But here, this is real. In particular, the footage of space itself is genuinely breath-taking. you'd be forgiven for thinking you were watching a high-end science-fiction production but no, you have to keep reminding yourself, this is the real deal.

The Apollo 11 mission is, of course, the most famous space exploration to date. 1969 saw the first steps on the moon by Armstrong, televised to eager audiences, as an absolute peak of the propaganda war that was the US-Soviet space race. The documentary does an impressive job of capturing the sheer novelty of the mission. The mass crowds gathering to watch the launch are filled with a genuine crackling excitement, aware they're involved in the making of history. The sheer nervousness among the NASA technicians during the mission is absolutely choking, and we're reminded that this mission was very much dicing with the lives of the astronauts.

Apollo 11 provides what all history documentaries should - not just a reflection of the past through the lense of today, but a genuine access to that past. It is vivid, it is very real, and it is well worth a watch.

This review is part of a new Film Review series I'm starting, focusing on historical films and their contexts. You can find other reviews here, or sign up to the blog to stay up to date. A previous review of Netlix's The Dig can be found here.


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