A Single National Goal

By Tim Winterstein

I took my two younger children (9 and 7) to see Apollo 11 this past week. The older loved it; the younger fell asleep (though probably because of slight sickness, rather than from boredom). Fifty years ago this July, two men from the United States set foot on the moon for the first time. That means it took place almost exactly ten years before I was born (now you know how old I am). Ten years isn’t a long time; fifty years really isn’t that long, relatively. But that launch, moonwalk, and return of those three astronauts as an event is almost completely foreign to me.

The film uses some of the 11,000 hours(!) of audio restored by Ben Feist and hundreds of hours of video (some of which is here). I don’t know how much has never been seen before or even how much was seen by those who were actually watching in 1969, but it looks great on a big screen. It’s so good that at more than one point I wondered if they had recreated events with more modern cameras. I thought the music by Matt Morton was just subtle enough and elevated the images, rather than drawing attention to itself.

But what draws all the pictures together and allows the story to hold a tension that it otherwise might not, given that we know (or could know) the outcome, is that this documentary has no voiceover narration or interviews with the principals involved. All voiceovers are voices of those involved in the mission, from team leaders, technicians, or astronauts. The film compresses the 8 days into 90 minutes but gives us the countdowns to various points of the mission in real time. Will the launch take place? Will they successfully accomplish the maneuvers? Will they land on the moon? Will they get off the moon? These are counted down and shown in real time, sometimes in split screen, to catch something of what it was like to be there.

I imagine that for someone who was alive and watching at the time, this movie would bring back those memories, sharpen and expand them. But for people of my generation and younger, for whom it’s purely a historical moment, the idea of thousands of people present and millions watching whenever there was a broadcast is hard to fathom. I literally cannot conceive of the sort of event it would take to bring a nation (even the world) together, working in common toward and hoping together for a given outcome.

Perhaps September 11, 2001, was a unifying moment in my lifetime, but for a different kind of reason. Tragedy does cause people to set aside differences that are overshadowed by a greater and more immediate threat. If (when) the zombie apocalypse comes, there’s a good chance it won’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican. (Then again, any kind of “apocalyptic” event has just as much likelihood of bringing about an everyone-for-himself-and-his-own situation as it does of banding humans together.)

A negative experience can and probably will at times in the future bring people together. But that seems altogether different from a positive undertaking that everyone is supporting together. I assume that there were some naysayers at the time. Nothing that humans do will ever have the support of every human. (E.g., at every LCMS convention, there are always a few contrarians who will vote “no” on things like whether we think babies are cute or whether we should support giving water to thirsty people.) But if such people existed, they’re not in the documentary. And I believe that’s probably pretty close to the reality. The vast majority of people wanted to see Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, so that any opposition was negligible.

What kind of event would do that today? And if the moon landing were happening today, we’d have all sorts of think pieces and hot takes about how it would be a waste, why it should have happened in some other way or not at all, why some other people should be the first to step foot on the moon, how this is just another example of the imperialistic, hegemonic, patriarchal, racist tendencies of the United States, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. No, I can’t see any similar unifying event happening in my lifetime.

So go see Apollo 11 because it’s a striking documentary. (I only wish I’d had the opportunity to see it on an IMAX screen.) Go see it because it’s filled with amazing and wondrous images—and iconic images put into their contexts. And go see it because—at least for me—it’s sort of like the visual documentation of a unicorn: a mythical thing that is hard to imagine ever existing before now or in the future. The difference is, of course, people did actually walk on the moon as the result of the work of hundreds of thousands of people, far prior to much of the technology that today we take for granted.