' ' Cinema Romantico: Apollo 11

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Apollo 11

Because NCAA Basketball’s climactic Final Four (stay with me!) is such a mega event, press row, where sportswriters and sportscasters sit, fills both sides of the court, meaning that frequently, if you know who you’re looking for, some sportswriters will pop up in the background of camera shots. That happened at some Final Four game, though I can’t place which one, involving Kentucky where the camera cut close to the team’s head coach John Calipari while in the background, for a moment, you could see The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach at her laptop on press row, roll her eyes and shake her head and almost seem to exhale in that way you do when muttering something like “idiot” under your breath. Because it’s Present Day, many people mentioned this moment to her on Twitter afterwards, and she indicated she did not remember it nor what she was thinking and what might have caused it. I thought of that moment when, in “Apollo 11”, Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary of the first manned mission to the moon in July 1969, after several panoramic shots of crowds having gathered around Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the Saturn V rocket, not inconspicuously evoking Woodstock, as if flower children and red-blooded Americans have spiritually merged, we cut to a close-up of a man in a lawn chair sipping a can of Busch Light. I would swear this man has a “This better be worth it” expression, but who knows? Who knows what he was really thinking?

This is a split-second that nevertheless encapsulates “Apollo 11.” Because Miller, in gaining access to never-before-seen footage and audio recordings of the eponymous mission, forgoes accentuating it with talking heads or off-screen interviews, limiting detailed information to barebones graphics or the solemn intonation of Walter Cronkite. The latter naturally emits the air, then, of a television broadcast, and that is why Miller’s documentary suggests Brett Morgen’s “June 17, 1994”, which culled television images of the day in question, all from various sporting events, where literally or philosophically, centered around O.J. Simpson’s White Bronco chase down the L.A. freeway. Morgen’s intent, however, was to show not so much life as we live it but life lived through the prism of a TV set, his editors essentially functioning as the remote control, flipping us around, his access to behind the scenes footage only making clearer how much of what is shown can be easily manipulated. Miller, on the other hand, removes that filter, creating something akin to direct cinema, an evocation of reality as close as it can possibly be.

It’s not veritĂ©, not like Damien Chazelle elicited through his space-set scenes in “First Man”, though the space footage of “Apollo 11”, unbroken and frequently obfuscated shots of Earth or, breathlessly, the dark side of the Moon through the spacecraft’s compact windows often makes clear just how right Chazelle got it. No, Miller knocks that wall away. And that’s why his most conspicuous misstep involves the astronauts themselves, whom we do not even see at first, Miller first lingering over the immensity of the Saturn V itself, the scale harmonizing with the gaggle of white-shirted NASA men at mission control, before cutting to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, already in their spacesuits, all these images taken in tandem suggesting no one is more important than the other. And as the three space pioneers wait for transportation to the launch pad, we briefly see Armstrong just, like, staring into space, a shot rhyming with the Busch Light sipping man from earlier.

The other day, waiting at the corner of Illinois & Columbus, four firetrucks sped by, a big blaze having broken out somewhere, and as the last truck passed, I saw a firefighter seated backwards, his hood already in place, but not looking concerned nor determined but...contemplative? His hand was in his jaw and, hand of God, he looked just like Armstrong did in that “Apollo 11” moment, equally unreadable. What was that fireman thinking? What was Armstrong thinking before he flew to the freaking moon? And that is why, just after seeing this shot of Armstrong, Miller suddenly inserting archival footage of the three lunar-bound astronauts, like home movies and black and white photos, is a violation of his direct cinema approach, momentarily, jarringly, oddly inserting his directorial presence and telling us what to think.

While Miller does end on JFK’s immortal declaration of “we choose to go to the moon”, the event is not necessarily being politicized despite scenes of NASA men waving American flags as they break out cigars and even the astonishing audio of mission control discussing the news of the day – Chappaquiddick. That’s because the latter feels profound in a different way, part of the reality surrounding the reality of the moon landing, life just going on. And so at the documentary’s end, aboard the aircraft carrier where the three astronauts return after their water landing, even if we do see President Nixon there to greet them, the shot remains wide, and gets wider still, allowing the President to just blend into the crowd, another reveler, his thoughts as hard to interpret as those of pre-flight Neil Armstrong and the nameless man sipping Busch Light.

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