Apollo 11 at 50: 7 Films to Celebrate the Moon Landing
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the first time humans ever stepped foot on another body in space, and as a lifelong NASA geek, I thought I’d put together a list of films to watch which dramatize or explore our journey from Earth to our Moon.
The Right Stuff (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1983)
While the main critiques of this film–that it is both boring and too long–are not unfounded, it is truly a cinematic tour de force. The story dramatizes the post-World War II universe of test pilots and how they became astronauts. It is bookended with Chuck Yeager, one of the most fascinating people to ever become an American icon. Though Yeager never became an astronaut, Kaufman (who wrote as well as directed the film) foregrounds him as the model for the first class of astronauts, and pushes the idea that they were pilots and not merely test subjects strapped to rockets. Yeager and the Mercury 7 strongly argued that they were active participants in flying to space and not just passive participants subject to the whims of engineers. This idea is threaded throughout the film, placing these men front and center, all culminating with an argument between the pilots and engineers as to whether the capsule/spacecraft should have a window. While Ed Harris is great as John Glenn, the standout for me is always Fred Ward’s depiction of Gus Grissom, one of the hardest working astronauts who was tragically killed in the Apollo 1 fire.
Truly an epic along the lines of Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, the film has a huge scope, a large cast, and takes place over several years and locations, from Edwards Airforce Base in California to a remote part of Australia. I also appreciate that it is not as jingoistic or even blindly patriotic as may be implied by some of its iconic imagery (and the way Bill Conti’s score is used fascinates me in this regard), it’s actually a wry look at the haphazard way some aspects of our journey to space came together. The Right Stuff is also one of the most visceral depictions of the violence and majesty involved in trying to escape the bounds of Earth, only recently matched by a film that came out last year.
First Man (dir. Damien Chazelle, 2018)
I was lukewarm on this film back in October, and it shows the snapshot and fleeting nature of end of year lists that this film did not grace mine. Since seeing it those ten months ago, however, I have been listening to Justin Hurwitz's score practically weekly (the vinyl release from Mondo is literally sitting on my turntable right now), but my issues with the film have faded while its strengths have grown in my mind. Revisiting it so soon after watching The Right Stuff makes it feel even more of a piece with that film. While sometimes getting lost in the shuffle of The Right Stuff’s expansive scope, when Chazelle’s film is tight on Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), First Man brings some of its more complex themes into bright focus. These include the haunting sense of death that surrounded these men, their patriarchal and generational values requiring that they keep their “cool” above all else, and the violence of leaving Earth’s lower atmosphere.
While Armstrong remains an enigmatic figure, Gosling’s performance shows him to be an extremely competent and intelligent man beleaguered by grief. It makes him no less heroic, and he flies in the face of personal tragedy to be calm in the face of being the first person to step foot on a body in space. In these ways, First Man manages to be both a celebration of “The Right Stuff”–those qualities Yeager embodied–while questioning the value of that Stuff at the same time.
Apollo 11 (dir. Todd Douglas Miller, 2019) / For All Mankind (dir. Al Reinert, 1989)
I am tying these two documentaries together because they are both comprised of NASA footage edited together to tell the story of the Apollo missions. The newer documentary, Apollo 11, used some previously unseen footage, including a bunch of beautiful 70MM shots that are absolutely stunning in their pristine, hyperdetailed glory. Miller’s film does not feature any interviews or non-historical footage, but uses extensive archival audio to merge with the images and bring to life the behind the scenes work of the space program.
For All Mankind was originally something closer to a silent film, with Brian Eno’s ambient score providing the ballet-like movement with an additional sense of rhythm. But in order to reach larger audiences, Reinert (who also co-wrote the screenplay for the next film on this list) added audio interviews he had conducted with astronauts in the late 1970s.
Both films eschew outside commentary in order to try to tell the Apollo story only with archival documentation, and they both succeed while having very different tones. Apollo 11 feels more lived in while also flashier through the use of such high quality source material, while For All Mankind feels like a loving tribute by way of memory. They are different enough where the new film doesn’t replace the older one, but I’d recommend the former if you are looking for the most immediate kind of experience.
Apollo 13 (dir. Ron Howard, 1995)
I’m not sure another film has so perfectly balanced inspiration and loss. Made while we were at least still launching people into space from within the United States (which hasn't happened since the Space Shuttle retirement in 2011), Apollo 13 still mourns the fact that we hadn't been to the Moon in over 20 years when the film first released (almost 50 now). All of that is meta-textual to the film.
What drives this film’s version of Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) to seek a spot on a Moon landing isn’t ego so much as the pure sense of adventure and wonder. And seeing him come so close to his destination–separated by nothing but literal empty space–and watching him process that he will never get any closer to the Moon and that he is now required to make peace with that, is actually devastating. It’s a melancholy moment in the middle of a film that otherwise is all about celebrating ingenuity in the face of crisis.
That feeling extends to Apollo 13’s view of NASA. The film celebrates the space program as something audacious and ingenious, and the men who participated in it (both in space and on the ground) as brave, resourceful, and committed. This film puts aside the political ramifications of the Space Race (since the US had already won) and foregrounds it as a human mission. It is certainly possible to read the film as patriotic, but the film spends much more time with Mission Control in Houston, and Lovell’s family, than it does with any overtly political angles. There’s no glossing over the technical details, but the focus is smart people making decisions and solving problems. Similarly to how the most exciting part of a heist movie is when the plan shifts down from Plan A all the way to Plan C, Apollo 13 captures that race against the clock, but with the added heft of real-life drama.
Howard manages a huge cast expertly, and is buoyed by great performances across the board from not only Hanks, but Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, Kathleen Quinlan, and Chris Ellis. This movie is as close to perfect as I can think of. And just like the first time, I know the ending, but I still hold my breath as they reenter the atmosphere.
Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi, 2016)
I don’t think this is a good movie. It’s schmaltz of the highest degree, with a script that is more interested in recounting the events in a way that makes for the most recognizable of movie arcs. That said, given what they had to work with, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae give charming performances, as do Kevin Costner and Kristen Dunst.
And the story itself, for all of its gloss in the film, is inspiring, fascinating, and important. If you are getting your NASA history primarily from pop culture, this film should be essential viewing despite the paint-by-numbers effort.
Last Man on the Moon (dir. Mark Craig, 2014)
This straightforward documentary focuses on Gene Cernan, currently the most recent human to have walked on the Moon (as part of Apollo 17 on December 13, 1972). He fits that stoic, modest cowboy type that most of those astronauts seemed to be, but that’s not what makes this documentary so interesting. Craig divides his time between Cernan’s backstory and his life after coming home from the Moon, showing the profound impact it had on his life. This larger scope works better in a documentary than it does in a dramatic film, and Cernan is a warm and eccentric figure who lived a fascinating life (he passed in 2017, after this film was completed).
Bonus: From the Earth to the Moon (various directors, 1998)
After working together on Apollo 13, the star, director, and producer (Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, and Brian Glazer) continued their working relationship to dramatize the entire Apollo program over the course of 12 hour-long episodes on HBO. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of the program or specific mission, with a huge cast that alternates between starring in episodes and being part of the supporting cast for other episodes. Rather than trying to tell one story, it shows at least 12, weaving in fictional narratives to help streamline some events. Standout episodes include the second, “Apollo One,” which focuses on the investigation after that tragedy, and “The Original Wives Club,” about the wives of the Apollo astronauts, which was directed by Sally Field.
After only being available on VHS and DVD for years, the series was remastered in HD and released on Blu-Ray for the first time for this 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11. It is also now streaming on HBO.