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At the time First Man came out, I was both impressed and a little bit aggravated about the outrage surrounding the film, because I thought it was one of the best films of 2018. And as it turns out, one of the best films of 2019 may be on this same ground.
Todd Douglas Miller directed the film, which is almost exclusively shown through newly discovered 65mm film from NASA's archives, with occasional extracurricular newsreel footage and some computer animations that help to illustrate the difficulty of a particular task that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had to experience in the run-up to and departure from the world's first exploration of the lunar surface. The film does not interview the astronauts or anyone else in a contemporary context, relying heavily on audio between Mission Control and the astronauts, with an occasional audio snippet by another party. It's a conscious choice that pays off magnificently.
In the opening frames of the film, when the flight crew is getting briefed, before you see the astronauts on screen, you get an idea of just how mint the film looks. It helps to bring you into the anxiety and tension of what needed to be done in Apollo 11; the lunar module extraction, the landing and takeoff from the moon, the return to Earth. Basically well, EVERYTHING that we as a people had not done before that point; it was one thing to send a man to space and bring him back safely, a far more consequential other to send him to the Moon.
The film ends with a perfect note of fulfillment to the words that John Kennedy said years before about going to the moon, and puts a larger specter of import on what it was we were doing. It staggers the mind and makes you weep in terms of the accomplishment the folks at NASA were able to do, and the added brilliance of having the film look like it was shot yesterday puts the viewer into the middle of the action immediately, no matter the level of familiarity with the task.
Where First Man showed everyone the struggles for Neil Armstrong in the years, days and minutes before and during the Apollo 11 launch, Apollo 11 sticks with the events that transpire during the mission, which were daunting in and of themselves. Using brilliantly restored video and straightforward storytelling, it serves as not only one of the best documentaries of 2019 but is very possibly the best film of 2019 because it focuses on the tension of the mission and immerses the viewer without drowning them.
Apollo 11 is presented in 2.20:1 widescreen with the AVC codec. The thing about this footage is that it was scanned at 8K and 16K and the results are breathtaking. Detail in the lunar surface is ample (as is the contrast of space blacks against everything else on the surface), and in larger shots for instance on the deck of the aircraft carrier during recovery, the sunrise looks amazing, and puts the viewer in the middle of the action. Colors are vivid and flesh tones are natural, and in a strange way looks like it could have come from 2001, it looks that sharp and, well-defined. You cannot say enough good things about the video, and the only thing I can say is that you need to see it on a big screen, be it TV, IMAX or other.
The Dolby DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless surround is just as up to the task, with the lunar rocket producing tons of low end subwoofer activity to piss the neighbors off. But it starts before that with the lunar rocket transporter from Kennedy to the launchpad, its low methodical rumble putting low-end through all of the available channels. Radio communications are as crisp as can be, the score sounds great, and everything does a remarkable job of placing you in the middle of the action.
Along with the film's trailer, you get a look at the recovered film and the efforts to remaster it for the movie. Definitely a daunting task, but would have liked more than a three and a half minute featurette for such a nice film.
Apollo 11 is what happens when you take the last 20 minutes of First Man (which leave your jaw dropped) and turn it into a 90-minute experience unlike any you may have experienced to date. Technically the film's transfer is stellar, with the lack of any real bonus material the only wart on an otherwise remarkable experience. Seek this film out at your earliest opportunity.