Just a few seconds after Apollo 11 you realize that this is unlike any documentary you've ever seen. The crystal clear, breathtaking detail of the NASA crawler transporters – a veritable city on wheels – rumbles across the screen, pushing the mighty Saturn V rocket to its launch pad. A few weeks later, this rocket sends three American astronauts to the moon.
You know the story, but you've never seen it like this before.
It consists exclusively of archive material that has never been released to the public, Apollo 11 today in theaters, tells the story of the first moon landing as if it were a Hollywood thriller. There are no interviews with the subjects, no heavy stories. There are only the sounds and images of this occasion ̵
That its end is preordained (they reach the moon, plant the flag, no one dies) Apollo 11 does not make the whole thing less exciting. The ungrounded material is too mesmerizing and the feat too unbelievable to look away. It is a representation of a wondrous human experience told with astonishing clarity. It's as close as each one of us will get to that big gray rock hovering far above our heads.
Director Todd Douglas Miller and the archivist Stephen Slater collaborated with NASA and the US National Archives to uncover hundreds of hours of video and thousands of hours of audio which they then had to adapt to the material. (They also had to turn the entire movie into a digital format.) Perhaps the only effort of humanity, as effort and precision as bringing three people to the moon, is the fact that all the footage becomes a coherent, exciting narrative.  It helps that the found material is really remarkable. The accompanying audio is also an absolute treat, especially the radio communication between the astronauts and the mission control in Houston, Texas. (A particular gem is a radio that records the heart rate of the three astronauts during the takeoff sequence.) Collins and Armstrong were both well over 100, as you would expect.Aldrins was 86-a fairly normal rest period.)
Apollo 11 comes shortly after another documentary that uses archive material very well – Peter Jackson's document on the First World War (19459003). They will not grow old . Jackson and his team searched 600 hours of video from the British war museums in England and audio from the BBC archives before it was restored, colored and digitized. Jackson also hired lip readers to decipher what the soldiers said in the footage and vocal actors to utter their words.
Neither the 1969 moon landing nor the First World War are a mystery to the general public, but both documentaries fill gaps in the emotional stories, with faces, voices, and personal accounts to better understand these historical moments. The story is not complete when you learn what happened. We should also, as best we can, find out what it was like to be there. In less than two hours, Apollo 11 takes us to the Moon and back.