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'Apollo 11' review: Must-see, breathtaking account of the 1969 mission to the moon

"Apollo 11," directed by Todd Douglas Miller,

 "Apollo 11," directed by Todd Douglas Miller, chronicles the 1969 moon landing. Credit: Neon

PLOT The story of the 1969 mission that first put a man on the moon, told through archival film and audio.



PLAYING AT Stony Brook 17, in the IMAX format

BOTTOM LINE A riveting re-creation of events with astonishing vividness and detail. A must-see.

If everything old seems new again these days, that’s because, in some cases, it is.

Peter Jackson’s recent documentary on World War I, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” used digital restoration techniques to turn century-old film into natural-looking color images that, in a sense, had never before been seen. Jackson’s next project will edit down 55 hours of never-released footage of the Beatles into a feature documentary. Meanwhile, the latest film from Todd Douglas Miller, “Apollo 11,” re-creates the 1969 moon mission using newly discovered footage from the National Archives.

This material doesn’t just consist of alternate angles and a few quotes from Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, the NASA astronauts who undertook the mission. This material is grand, sweeping and breathtakingly cinematic. Some of it, originally filmed in 65 mm — the same format used for big-screen Hollywood epics — has been seen in cropped versions here and there, but never in its full glory until now.

With this gorgeous raw material, plus archival audio that took years to cull and index, Miller ("Dinosaur 13") assembles what feels like a live news feed of events, from launch to moon landing to splashdown, that streams directly into your brain. Ostensibly mundane images, like the rows of short-sleeved staffers manning computers in the control room, or the sunglass-wearing crowds watching the takeoff from the parking lot of a nearby J.C. Penney, spring to vivid life. The hot orange of the rockets, the pristine gray-white of the moon and the warm blue of Earth’s re-entered sky are as dazzling as anything in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or last year’s “First Man.”

Like Jackson’s World War I film, “Apollo 11” breaks from the traditional documentary format, forgoing the usual experts and historians or even first-person testimony and instead relying solely on recorded evidence. Only once does Miller indulge in some artifice, when he amplifies John Stewart’s grandiose pop song “Mother Country,” a track on Buzz Aldrin’s mixtape (yes, he had one).

Watching the careful, inch-by-inch approach to the moon from the perspective of the lunar module (built at Grumman Aerospace in Bethpage) is just one of the highlights of Miller’s film. It’s playing for one week in the IMAX format, which may be as close to space exploration as most of us will ever come.

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