It’s a feat that grows more stunning in recollection (and imagination), given that America nowadays could not successfully collaborate on a pizza order, much less launch a trip to the moon and back. We argue too much. The glory of space exploration is thus ceded to billionaires and 1-percenter space tourists, while the rest of us retreat to caves to belligerently demean science. The moon gets an inch or so farther away from us each year; in a psychic sense, it drifts away even faster, along with our dreams. Neil Armstrong is dead.
TV’s 50th-anniversary documentaries and retrospective specials about the 1969 lunar landing have been relentless, comprehensive and, to say the least, timelessly fascinating. Up and down the cable grid (Nat Geo, Smithsonian Channel, Discovery, Science Channel) along with PBS and the broadcast networks, these specials keep airing, with varying success at conveying the courage and awe, the tension and the relief.
It would take X number of trips to the moon and back to add up to the y number of hours required to watch them all. Many are rote, perfunctory — making use of much of the same NASA and archival news footage we’ve seen all our lives, conveying the same message of hope and wonderment: Once upon a time, against all odds, we sent astronauts to the moon, and, for the briefest moment, the world felt as one. (In the next moment, it was back to business: war, culture clash, suffering.)
Don’t ask me what it truly felt like; I was in diapers. I am, however, old enough to recognize that the challenge in 2019 is to tell an old story in a new way. Two standouts have already aired but are still readily available in repeats and on-demand: Director Todd Douglas Miller’s mesmerizing “Apollo 11,” which played earlier this year in movie theaters and premiered last month on CNN (and will air again on the network Saturday night), is an artfully assembled account that draws only on footage — no talking heads, no omniscient narrator. The effect is spare and transcendent.
“Chasing the Moon,” Robert Stone’s three-part documentary for PBS’ “American Experience” that premiered July 8, similarly achieves a Tom Wolfe-style sweeping epic of the nascent Space Age in the 1960s, all of it leading to the one giant leap for mankind.
It, too, allows the momentum of archival footage to replace heavy narration. Voice-over interviews drift seamlessly between past and present. In both projects, a viewer can float free of the old format that required a voice of authority (usually male). It’s as if history has a way of finally reaching its own orbit. We’re no longer being informed so much as we are being invited to imagine the magnitude of it all, as it happened.
Next to NASA itself, television has every claim to the event — as well as its subsequent anniversaries. The TV is what everyone on Earth who was alive at the time remembers about that night. They remember it (or think they remember it) right down to the kind and size of the TV set and the late hour on a summer Sunday evening (in U.S. time zones) when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent a couple of hours walking around the Eagle landing module at Tranquility Base, gathering samples, planting the flag and taking photographs, while a black-and-white live camera on the module beamed their shadowy movements to viewers back home.
For some reason, in this slew of retrospectives, I am most drawn to the images and footage of ordinary people watching TV in that moment — gathered around store windows, sitting in living rooms. There is more than enough footage of all those engineers at Mission Control watching the astronauts’ moon walk (and I do admire them so, in their nerdy manliness; the Don Draper haircuts, short-sleeved dress shirts and horn-rimmed intensity). There’s also plenty of wide shots of crowds in Florida watching Apollo 11’s liftoff. But there is seemingly less interest in documenting the faces and reactions of Earthlings watching the big reveal.
BBC America’s “Moon Landing Live,” which premieres Saturday night, is an attempt, somewhat, to rectify that. In addition to replaying live news coverage, as Walter Cronkite and other anchormen collectively hold their breath during tense periods of radio silence between the astronauts and Mission Control, the documentary compiles footage from around the world as people fretted, prayed, marveled and just watched.
People attending a soul music festival in Harlem are asked what they think of the Apollo mission. One man praises it but admits, “I don’t identify to it — as far as science goes and everyone involved in it.” A German news crew asks passing women which of the three Apollo astronauts they’d most like to go dancing with. (“Mit Armstrong, danke,” one lady giggles.)
“I’ve not got appropriate words,” a Tokyo businessman tells an interviewer on the street. “The only thing I can say is, ‘Banzai!’ for Apollo 11.” In another clip, a reporter asks an American soldier in Vietnam whether the lunar landing will really change the world, and the soldier concedes: Probably not.
More like this, please. Everyone knows what the NASA footage looks like. Everyone knows what it means when Cronkite removes his glasses. Everyone has heard President Richard Nixon (who was probably more giddy about Ted Kennedy’s car wreck at Chappaquiddick that same weekend) place his momentous phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin and assure them of their place in history: “For every American, this has to be the proudest day of our lives.”
Time goes on, and fewer of us really know what that meant. I would watch an entire documentary made from footage of just the faces of people across the country and around the world struck dumb, seeking words to match their feelings, welling up with tears as it happened. But that one has so far eluded the schedule.
"Moon Landing Live" (two hours) premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on BBC America.
"Apollo 11" (two hours) encore presentation Saturday at 9 p.m. ET and 11 p.m. ET on CNN.
"American Experience: Chasing the Moon" (six hours, three parts) check your local PBS listings or visit PBS.org for viewing info.