No matter what your age or orientation (political or otherwise), it's hard to gainsay the significance of humankind's first trip through space to set foot on a celestial body other than our birth planet.
Of course fictional space flight has become so common, in books and video, that sitting down for two hours to watch a documentary about a real trip that took place half a century ago might seem like a somewhat pedestrian enterprise.
Ah, but don't be fooled.
Like the mission itself, the film is the work of supreme technicians who understand that the reward for dedication to their craft, their mission and their colleagues, is the accomplishment of some high achievement that no one of them could possibly have realized on their own.
If there is a central tragedy at the heart of most contemporary filmmaking, it is this: that so many people work so seamlessly together, applying such high levels of technical skill to create astonishing sequences of special effects, only to tell us one more story about some isolated loner seeking some combination of money, glory or revenge: and so the stories oft told by such films are frank betrayals of the realities of how these movies actually get made.
Apollo 11 is completely different. It shows us the gradual, measured unfolding of a true story about a real accomplishment. And in each loving frame, it reveals the truth of what actually happened, and how such achievements are possible. And what it shows us is nothing like what we see in most fiction, and nothing like what we too often see in society around us today. Instead, here's what we are privileged to observe:
- A vast team of dedicated professionals, all bent towards a singular purpose;
- People with the vision, patience and persistence to focus on a common mission that will take a decade or more to complete;
- People who understand that important work requires sustained and focused effort over long periods of time;
- Adults who understand that moments of high drama are not the things they live for, but are indications that something has gone wrong, that some mistake has been made, and must be quickly evaluated and, if necessary, corrected;
- An undertaking funded and led by our US government that brings together all American citizens, as well as others all over the globe, in appreciation and support of a single common goal;
- Levels of trust in one another that seem almost unimaginable today, especially in any sphere of public enterprise;
- Degrees of common civility and assumed professionalism that underpin that trust;
- People who live every day of their lives by the credo that actions and results are more important than words, who have no need of, or patience for, posturing or grandstanding;
- A Republican president continuing a mission launched by a Democratic predecessor, and selflessly congratulating participants on the mission's success;
- And, perhaps most compellingly, we see three ordinary Americans, with wives and families and professional careers, willingly and knowingly embarking on a journey that has never been taken before, a trip that, step by step, stage by stage, mile by mile, hurls them ever farther from everything and everyone they have ever known, into an alien and unforgiving environment, and to a destination so remote that they are completely beyond any possible help or rescue should the slightest element of their mission go wrong; and we see them taking this journey, and completing it successfully, without the slightest hesitation, and with an unwavering and steadfast humanity, as well as faith in the shared humanity of others.
It's hard to imagine finding two hours of cinema that could prove more instructive or enlightening in 2019, or perhaps in any year.
And don't let the understated style of filmmaking here lull you into the belief that nothing of significance is going on: in truth, the slow, measured, taut presentation of the film is a reflection of the very characteristics of the mission it is documenting, and the adventurers it depicts. The style of the film is simply a perfectly appropriate extension of its subject matter, and a way for the moviemakers to instruct us, not just by what they show us, but by how it is shown.
I've been reading This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution by David Sloan Wilson of late, and I can recommend this illuminating book as the perfect companion to Apollo 11. Wilson explains patiently and convincingly how we humans are the products, for better or for worse, of our collective cultural evolution. He also talks about how we humans have the ability to work together seamlessly to form large and capable societies, as well as the ways in which those societies can break down, and what we must do to rebuild them.
For anyone who sincerely wishes to make America great again, or indeed to undertake and sustain any complex, demanding but worthwhile human enterprise, Apollo 11 provides an essential and convincing view of how such things are really done.