With the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 and mankind's first steps on the surface of the moon just around the corner, it should come as no surprise that a number of DVD labels are releasing retrospective documentaries, cashing in on the higher-than-usual level of interest this year. Apollo 11 - A Night to Remember is a BBC program, oddly enough, from 2006, a two-hour special telling the story from the British television network's perspective. It follows the build-up to the Apollo 11 launch on July 16, 1969 through to the lunar module Eagle's rendezvous with the lunar orbiter, Columbia, on July 21st (making the "A Night to Remember" subtitle rather inapt; the show covers six nights worth remembering).
The show incorporates a smorgasbord of footage; BBC film and videotape material - though much of the latter was, inexcusably, destroyed and/or lost by the network - along with a then-live NASA video feed and other NASA-filmed footage. It's a good DVD worth getting, especially for those of us old enough to remember seeing the moon landings, because it captures the nervous excitement of the time quite well, while younger generations can marvel at man's amazing achievement with technology that by 2009 standards often seems almost ludicrously cumbersome and primitive.
A Night to Remember is hosted by Sir Patrick Moore, an amateur astronomer and famous television presenter, a fixture on the BBC since his program The Sky at Night began airing in 1957, a show he continues to host 52 years later. Apparently he's a rather controversial figure in Britain, an outspoken conservative known for his occasionally inflammatory remarks. With his gravelly, Churchill-esque delivery and physique, (unbuttoned) trousers pulled up to his breastbone, crooked regimental necktie, ash-stained jacket and, were that not enough, an ostentatious monocle, he's almost like a parody of British stuffiness.
Though Moore was present at the BBC during the mission, most of that footage either doesn't survive or is in very poor condition and it's barely glimpsed. Instead, most of the show consists of NASA video feed material, intercut with remote filmed reports by BBC reporter James Burke, who sadly doesn't appear in any of the new introductions. Reporting mainly from Houston, Burke gives a tour of an Apollo capsule, dons a space suit (and strips down to its underwear and "highly absorbent nappies"), briefly experiences zero gravity, etc. His material is quite interesting because of the detail he provides them, including going through all the major functions of the capsule's instrument panels (fascinating stuff, even for the layman), the various layers of the spacesuit and helmet, and personal observations while in zero gravity.
Though the NASA footage is overly familiar, it's presented here in an interesting way. The launch, moon landing, and preparations for the first moon walk unfold at a pace probably much too slow for contemporary American television, even on the Discovery or National Geographic channels. There's long, hard-to-discern black and white video footage of Neil Armstrong outside the capsule where it's so murky it's almost impossible to know for sure what the audience is even looking at. Nevertheless, such video seemed amazingly good at the time and as such accurately captures the excitement of the event which enthralled viewers the world over. It was, after all, incredibly, unfolding live. These were images from the actual surface of the moon, as it was happening, and the images were moving. Man on the moon. Who'd have thought it?
It's also fascinating with 40 years now of hindsight, to consider, for instance, that the computer I'm writing this review on is infinitely more sophisticated than just about anything NASA was using back in 1969; if something like it existed back then it probably cost a million dollars to build and likely took up several rooms. This is not to sneer at the relative primitive technology, but rather to marvel at what was accomplished with its limitations. A trip to the moon and back was and is extraordinarily complex; that NASA did so safely is still incredible all these decades later.
Video & Audio
Apollo 11 - A Night to Remember is presented in full-frame format, with audio and video varying widely depending upon the source material, but it's pretty much all captivating. The Dolby Digital mono is fine, and the 118-minute DVD offers SDH subtitles.
The lone extra is an interesting one: a 17-minute episode of The Sky at Night, from September 27, 1960, with Moore discussing the first photographs taken of the far side of the moon. The audio is quite noisy, but otherwise it's a fun little program.
Apollo 11 - A Night to Remember is a modest but nostalgic and educational program with a lot of good material, offering a British perspective not much different from the American one, of a colossally important moment in science and history. Recommended.
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