I guess that I have to start by wondering if making a documentary about the Apollo 11 moon landing was ever really that necessary. I mean, considering that the show I just watched was broadcast in July 2019, a full fifty years since the mission, it was inevitable. But as someone who has watched a fair number of documentaries, I tend to gravitate toward the ones with stories that aren’t so commonly told. And Apollo 11 has been told and retold several times over since it happened live in 1969.
Quick, unshocking confession: I wasn’t there. I was born eighteen years later, in the late-1970s era of the Carter administration and our post-Vietnam War hangover that came with economic downturn, oil crises, and what was called “malaise.” My childhood, by contrast, was spent in the Reagan era of the Eighties, which certainly had a brighter sheen to it, especially in the latter half of the decade. My experience with NASA was via the shuttle program, and the biggest event for me there was the Challenger disaster in 1986. Despite that, I have always been fascinated by space and space travel (I even saw SpaceCamp more than once), and I remember vividly in 1989 when my sixth grade teacher played a VHS about the moon landing.
So here comes one of my favorite shows on PBS, American Experience, with a three-night, six-hour documentary called Chasing the Moon. It not only details the mission of the Apollo 11 astronauts in its third act, but it traces the entire history of the space program up until that point, starting with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.
The filmmaker, Robert Stone (whose The Civilian Conservation Corps has also been featured on American Experience), takes on this comprehensive and nearly overwhelming task rather remarkably, using an enormous amount of archival footage with accompanying voice-overs to give us as much of the story as possible. Some of the footage was brand new to the public, and his look into the Soviet space program was something I’d personally never seen before, an angle that was augmented by interviews with the son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. For example, I didn’t know that at the exact same time that the world was watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic landing, the Soviet probe Luna 15 was on approach to land, take samples, and take off. It crash landed and was not successful.
Those details, and the look into how the Soviets handled their side of the space race, were just as fascinating as the training and mission footage. Equally fascinating was the look at the personal lives of the astronauts as well as the way that the space program was very detached from the socio-political landscape of the late 1960s. There is some discussion of the Civil Rights movement and the racism contained within the government and the military, as Ed Dwight’s story is told. His was a story I did not know–and I certainly didn’t learn about in school–and it adds more perspective to the story (there’s an outstanding New York Times article about Dwight from 2019 as well).
The role of women was also looked at, with NASA engineer Poppy Northcutt being extensively interviewed, so we weren’t just getting the perspectives of the astronauts’ wives. I was, however, surprised by the lack of mention of Katherine Johnson or any of the women who were featured in the book and film Hidden Figures. Considering how much they have been in the mainstream since the film, I think it’s probably the biggest oversight on Stone’s part and would have enriched both the African-American and female experience within the very male, very white world of 1960s NASA.
But flaws aside, this is an outstanding documentary because not only does it hit you with a lot of facts and stories, but it hits emotional beats. The Apollo 1 disaster is given the appropriate amount of seriousness, and Stone does not exploit the scene or use any footage beyond audio with text on black background. Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” photo is still one of the most breathtaking pictures ever taken. And the most famous moments of the moon landing–touchdown and the first steps on the moon–will get you choked up even if you were never alive to see it.
I’d say yes, this feels like you’re going to school and learning about the same old stuff because it doesn’t have the salaciousness of some true crime documentary, but I finished Chasing the Moon pretty gobsmacked that we achieved something that monumental and monumentally difficult. In times like this, it’s a much-needed reminder of our potential and leaves you with hope, if not for a brief moment.
Buy, Rent, or Skip?
In fact, you can stream it via PBS’ website (and the PBS app): Chasing the Moon