Tuesday, June 04, 2019

First to the Moon: The Apollo 8 Documentary

In cinematic terms, you can think of it as a prequel to either First Man or Apollo 13. There is about to be wall-to-wall programming commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon on PBS and the Smithsonian Channel (but somehow the History Channel never heard of it), but in a clever shift of focus, this film chronicles the previous Apollo mission that arguably did the most to make the Moon Landing possible. Veteran astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders explain how it happened, step-by-step in Paul J. Hildebrandt’s documentary First to the Moon, which releases today on DVD.

Lovell and Anders attended the Naval Academy, whereas Borman was a West Point graduate, so there was definitely a little rivalry there. Nevertheless, they managed to work quite well together during the course of Apollo 8. Their mission is somewhat overshadowed in many Americans’ minds by the successful Moon Landing, but the feat of completely orbiting the Moon was immensely significant at the time. In fact, Apollo 8 was moved up to beat a comparable Russian mission.

The Apollo 8 astronauts were the first to blast off atop the new Saturn 5 rockets and they were the first to lay unaided eyes on the Moon’s surface. They also brought back the iconic Moonrise photograph that was the subject of Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s terrific short doc. Best of all, they did it all before the Soviets could.

Borman, Lovell, and Anders all discuss Apollo 8 and their careers with NASA and the military at great length on-camera. As it happens, the first half-hour or so is devoted to their exploits as test pilots and Naval aviators. That might be too much of a good thing for some viewers, but it definitely establishes their personalities and their “right stuff” background.

Of course, most space program junkies would want more material rather than less, so the relatively long two-hour and one-minute running time will be A-OK with them. In fact, Hildebrandt manages to shoe horn an awful lot of interesting stuff into the film. It is all fascinating, except maybe for some of Anders’ New Age ruminations. (There are times when he sounds like he is reading the lyrics of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind.”)

Hildebrandt clearly knows his stuff, having previously helmed the important Fight for Space, which provides a timely warning of the potential costs for allowing our contemporary space program to atrophy into essential nothing. Sadly, Apollo 8 just seems so long ago, in so many ways. That is why well-produced documentaries about the golden age of space exploration are always worth your time and attention. Just like Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, and Last Man on the Moon, First to the Moon helps stir the remnants of our national idealism and our shared spirit of adventure. Highly recommended, First to the Moon releases today on VOD.