There is a line in William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion, in which he describes the immense crowds gathered for Churchill’s funeral in London in 1965. “When his flag-draped coffin moved slowly across the old capital,” the passage runs, “and bareheaded Londoners stood trembling in the cold, they mourned, not only him and all he had meant, but all that they had been, and no longer were, and would never be again.”
The American empire has not fallen as the British empire did, but we can experience a touch of that same all-that-we-once-were feeling every time something happens to remind us of the glories of the Space Age — our greatest achievement, receding without sequel in the rearview mirror. When the space shuttle Discovery flew its final mission in 2011, the science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson wrote, in a kind of bleak wonder: “My lifespan encompasses the era when the United States of America was capable of launching human beings into space. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on a braided rug before a hulking black-and-white television, watching the early Gemini missions. This summer, at the age of 51 — not even old — I watched on a flatscreen as the last Space Shuttle lifted off the pad.”
The same spirit of lament haunts the various cinematic attempts to re-create the first human landing on the moon, whose 50th anniversary will be memorialized this summer. Whether in the somewhat disappointing Neil Armstrong–focused re-creation from last fall, First Man, or the remarkable new documentary Apollo 11, it’s hard to watch footage showing exactly what we — we Americans, we human beings — accomplished without also feeling somehow that nothing so remarkable will ever be achieved again.
Perhaps that feeling is temporary, illusory, overly nostalgic, and the Elon Musk–Jeff Bezos space race will take us back to the lunar surface and beyond. But I defy anyone to sit through the tight 90 minutes of Apollo-era footage that makes up Todd Douglas Miller’s moon-landing documentary and not feel a bit like Manchester’s mourners, paying homage to giants whose feats seem, in our own otherwise more technologically proficient age, very long ago and far away.
I also defy the viewer to watch those 90 minutes and not feel a touch of sympathy for all the moon-landing conspiracy theorists, past and present, who have convinced themselves that the whole feat was just a patriotic Cold War hoax. Not because the footage Miller has put together seems anything but real, but because the reality of what was done seems so determinedly implausible.
The rocket that carried men into space resembles a set of nested tin cans seemingly sealed with foil and duct tape. The process of decoupling and recoupling and flaming reentry followed by splashdown seems ludicrously Rube Goldberg–esque — something made up by clever screenwriters in Hollywood looking to heighten drama, not scientists trying to keep men alive in space. So of course a conspiratorial mind would believe that the whole thing was somehow made with models in a studio somewhere and then shot by Stanley Kubrick on the NASA dime.
Some of the footage in Apollo 11 is familiar, but much of it I had never seen before: Miller gained access to an abundance of 70 mm footage from the mission, which includes a number of shots that are cinematic enough to fit into any space epic made today. And the documentarian made the wise decision to graft them all together without any explicit narration — Walter Cronkite’s voice is heard, but only as one voice among many — or any interviews save those conducted during the mission itself.
The only real editorial interpolation is the use of line drawings to show the trajectory of the rockets, the ways the modules are supposed to break apart and come together. The rest is just you-are-there shots of the astronauts, the crowds watching the liftoff, the control-room crew, the Earthscape in the astronaut’s window, the lander coming down, the one small step.
This gives the documentary a rare immediacy, which is heightened by the use of techniques familiar from Apollo-era films — a frequent split-screening of control-room scenes echoes the famous Woodstock rockumentary — and a soundtrack that relies on the rock-concert pulsing of a Moog synthesizer, the ultimate in a certain kind of ’70s-era musical technique.
The movie’s most powerful musical cue, though, comes straight out of the footage itself — from a spinning-in-zero-gravity cassette player that Buzz Aldrin turned on during the return journey, to play the now-obscure song “Mother Country” by the folk singer John Stewart. It’s a song about nostalgia, about hero worship, about the haze that falls over the past — the good old days when real heroes walked the earth.
Whatever happened to those faces in the old photographs? Stewart half-sings, half-speaks in a rasping folky voice, the fuzzy sound of Aldrin’s tape recorder turning clearer as the 50-year-old images flash across the screen. I defy any American viewer, any human viewer, not to feel a little bit choked up at that moment — in remembrance of the way we were, and in the hope that we can be that great again.
This article appears as “When Giants Walked the Moon” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.