When Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 capsule in 1969 to put the first human footprint on the moon, his remark, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” was criticized for being mundane and not linguistically worthy of the feat. Critics, however, did not take into account that Armstrong was no poet, but a hard-science engineer and pilot.
“Apollo 11,” a new documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, rectifies this without slighting the science behind the launch. Through archival footage, and newly discovered film, Miller lets the material speak for itself, showing the scientific moxie and matchless courage of the astronauts from design to takeoff to landing.
Of course the gold standard for the American space program is “The Right Stuff,” both in book and film form. Of the former, author Tom Wolfe’s brand of “gonzo journalism” captured the first time, and arguably the last, that a “single warrior” concept could be used in the Cold War (subsequent launches after the Mercury program would have more than one person in the capsule).
His novelistic technique granted the reader an insight into what he called “The Right Stuff.” This definition, unspoken of by test pilots, was comradely praise for a pilot risking death every day (usually after a booze-filled night) and coming out alive.
The film, directed by Philip Kaufman, was mythical to the point of slighting history. The best example was how Chuck Yeager, a war hero and test pilot, was portrayed as going up in one flight and breaking the sound barrier. The reality was much more mundane. Yeager had in fact been testing the bullet-shaped X-1 for months.
“Apollo 11” is just as mythical, but does not eschew the hard science required to get Americans on the moon. Miller knows that a primer in aerodynamics and algebra would bore the viewer, so he shows the scope of the project by supplying the viewer the number of engineers in the control room required to steer Armstrong and company to the moon.
The astronauts are rightly portrayed as heroes and patriots—quite an accomplishment in that the American flag they planted on the moon was, on earth, being burned by the anti-war left. For some, especially Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” it gave this beleaguered group a sorely needed patriotic boost. The less patriotic did not cheer, and rebuked the government for spending millions on a lunar landing and not social programs.
Wolfe ended his book in 1963, which he incorrectly viewed as the end of the Cold War. Although the Cold War didn’t end until for several decades, Wolfe was wise in this regard. As mentioned previously, after 1963, patriotism was considered politically incorrect by the anti-war left. The Vietnam War truly heated up under President Lyndon Johnson, who sent American soldiers into that third world country. Patriotism would more or less recover during the Reagan years.
What the documentary lacks is a sense of context. It should be remembered that there was a Cold War “space race” between Americans and the Soviets. When news of Sputnik reached the West in 1957, and a Soviet astronaut became the first man to orbit the earth, politicians and the American people panicked. They believed the Soviets could now launch missiles on a defenseless America from space.
There was also a propaganda dimension. President Dwight Eisenhower was perplexed by the panic, as he knew America had more lethal bombs than Russia did. Nevertheless, he also realized the propaganda value of besting the Soviets in the space program. His successor, John Kennedy, realized this even more, and confidently predicted that the Americans would beat the Soviets to a moon landing by the late 1960s.
Arguably, America winning the space race was the most bloodless victory of the Cold War, and we should not forget that. Sadly, “Apollo 11,” neglects to acknowledge the win as a Cold War triumph. That, however, is the only flaw with this momentous documentary.