2019 Film Essays

Why We Look Up: Traveling Space and Time in ‘Apollo 11’ and ‘Minding the Gap’

When I think about Apollo 11 and Minding the Gap, I see a brilliant blue sky. It yawns over Florida at the height of summer on July 16, 1969, drawing the gaze of thousands eager to observe history in the making. The same sky encases Rockford, Illinois, almost half a century later, as four boys careen out of a parking garage and into a street so empty they could be the only people alive.

On the surface, the documentaries appear to be in opposition, one a Cold War-era fantasy and the other a decidedly contemporary, sobering reality. Indeed, Minding the Gap’s Rockford feels like a product of the space-race-obsessed world captured by Apollo 11, a representation of the America left behind once promises of prosperity and innovation gave way to extreme income inequality and gutted social safety nets. The generation that put men on the moon valorized a stoic, industrious model of masculinity; their descendants wrestle with a culture that views emotion as weakness and the capacity to endure or inflict violence as strength.

It would be reductive, though, to characterize one movie as purely optimistic and the other as wholly cynical. Fear creeps around the margins of Apollo 11’s triumphant account. A news broadcast features a Vietnam War update and Sen. Ted Kennedy’s fatal Chappaquiddick car crash as headlines, and John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech carries nationalistic overtones despite his attempts to frame the moon landing as an idealistic gesture for all mankind.

At the same time, Minding the Gap makes room for joy. Here, skateboarding isn’t reckless, but soothing, a way to “feel normal in a world that’s not normal,” and when director Bing Liu’s camera sweeps after his friends as they glide up ramps, onto ledges and through roadways — with piano and strings stirring in the background — I get it. The boys barely leave the ground, but it feels like they’re flying.

For all their differences, Apollo 11 and Minding the Gap share an underlying fascination with escapism, recognizing that when people skate or watch a rocket launch, they don’t just want a diversion. They want freedom from the anxieties and responsibilities that dictate their daily lives; they want to shed the limits of the individual and to believe in the possibility of something more, something better. By taking advantage of the format’s ability to restore and reinterpret the past, these two documentaries tap into the same hunger for exploration that drives their subjects, turning physics-defying acts into a defiance of time.

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Flying used to be mere wishful thinking. Myths and legends sprang out of our species’ desire to soar through the air, kindling the imaginations of scientists and artists alike. Now, with Hollywood churning out an endless array of sleek spaceships equipped with laser guns, cloaking devices and faster-than-light-speed capabilities, taking flight seems mundane in comparison, no more worthy of applause than backing a car out of a driveway.

Within the first 10 minutes of Apollo 11, that disillusionment melts away as surely as the wax that fused Icarus’s wings. Aided by sound designer and re-recording mixer Kevin Allen Caby, director Todd Douglas Miller makes viewers keenly aware of all 7.6 million pounds of thrust expended by Saturn V to achieve liftoff from Cape Canaveral. The rocket’s quintet of engines unleashes a crackling boom so loud it seems to skip right past the eardrums and strike something deeper — the gut perhaps, or the heart. The theater seats and the bones of their occupants shudder; sound becomes a physical force, a thing not just heard, but felt.

While watching Apollo 11 in the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center’s cavernous Airbus IMAX theater in Virginia, I concluded that, short of experiencing it firsthand, history is best witnessed on a six-story-tall, 86-foot-wide screen with surround-sound speakers calibrated for optimal resonance and precision. Miller’s chronicle of the nine-day mission to put a man on the moon is impressive in any setting, but in IMAX, it overwhelms. As exemplified by the launch sequence, sound takes on new layers and dimensions, and images seem crisper, more vivid, more alive.

Immersion enhances the film not just as spectacle, but as a documentation of arguably the most notable week in the 20th century. While iconic quotes like Neil Armstrong’s “The Eagle has landed” and “one small step” lines get airtime, Apollo 11 proves more interested in the routine. Workers in NASA’s launch and mission control centers share technical updates with the astronauts whose wellbeing rests in their hands. Once in a while, a wry or enthusiastic quip slips by (“I’ll let you know if I stop breathing,” Mike Collins responds when told sensors monitoring his body’s condition have stopped transmitting data), but for the most part, everyone projects calm professionalism.

Apollo 11’s visuals feel similarly grounded. The camera is as likely to linger on a cafeteria sign alerting patrons to the availability of “good quality coffee” or launch observers sleeping in their cars as it is on the view of Earth from Apollo’s command module. In place of the expansive panoramas enabled by the Hubble Space Telescope or cinematic special effects, the cosmos mostly appears in fragments and flashes: a multicolored band of lights curving around Earth here, a tilting triangle of the Moon’s cratered surface there.

By including ambient details amid more obvious thrills, Apollo 11 lends the past the unmediated immediacy of the present, treating history less like an artifact to be analyzed than an experience. Gone are the talking heads that documentarians often turn to for context or perspective. There’s no postscript cataloging the fates that awaited the movie’s subjects, no meta commentary or pop culture touchstones to orient younger viewers and trigger their elders’ nostalgia. Instead, Miller and his team rely on archival material to depict Apollo 11’s journey from Saturn V’s launch pad transfer to Columbia’s recovery in the Pacific Ocean. John Stewart’s “Mother Country,” the lone pop music cue, actually played during the astronauts’ voyage. Even composer Matt Morton’s synth-heavy score consists exclusively of effects and instruments that existed contemporaneously.

And so, Apollo 11 pulls 2019 audiences back to America in July 1969. There’s a country on the verge of a breakthrough, teetering between analog and digital, tradition and innovation. NASA personnel monitor rows of computer servers and consoles, while reporters swarm a bank of pay phones and churn out copy on typewriters in a hectic pressroom. Men wearing suit jackets and bouffant-sporting women with cat-eye spectacles and pearls mingle at Cape Canaveral alongside onlookers in brightly colored miniskirts, polo shirts, and pink-tinted sunglasses.

Fifty years later, moviegoers look up at them looking up, waiting for a miracle.

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Minding the Gap takes a different route to the past. Where Apollo 11 echoes Dunkirk’s in-the-moment mindset, Liu’s feature directorial debut acknowledges the distance between then and now, evoking the wistfulness of Boyhood, another portrait of boys grappling with poverty, masculinity and abuse. Instead of capturing footage linearly as Richard Linklater did for his coming-of-age epic, Liu filmed for five years before delving into older videos to “expand the sense of time that you feel,” as he told The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah. The resulting movie doesn’t travel back in time so much as through it, crisscrossing a dozen years with the fluidity of memory.

A camera pushes in on the back of a young man named Zack scaling a brick building via exposed pipes. Below, a boy later identified as Kiere watches with a grin on his face and a skateboard under one arm, his tie-dye T-shirt vivid next to his companion’s all-black ensemble. They reach the building’s fire escape without encountering any obstacles, save an ignored “No trespassing” sign. They resume climbing, this time on a set of metal stairs. However, with six floors left, trepidation sets in, self-preservation instincts battling adrenaline, pride and whatever other impulses prompted this adventure.

“Come on, I just got the courage to do this,” Kiere says even as his eyes and still-wide smile betray relief when Zack suggests a retreat. He caves with a laugh: “I’m with you. I don’t want to die.”

Despite the relaxed vibe conveyed by Liu’s handheld camerawork, that opening efficiently establishes not only the tension between youthful daredevilry and sensible maturity that guides Minding the Gap, but also the personalities of its three central subjects. Ninety seconds are enough to showcase Zack’s magnetic presence and hint at the performative aspects of his swagger. Kiere demonstrates more self-awareness, his desire to prove himself tempered by sensitivity to danger. Liu captures the scene without comment, content to be an observer rather than a participant.

From there, what initially appears to be a contemplative yet straightforward exploration of skate culture branches out into unexpectedly personal directions. As a young father who ditched home when he was 16, Zack grapples with the newfound obligations of parenthood, a beer or joint often in hand. He dreams of following in his parents’ footsteps by opening an indoor skate park, but the plan collapses when a business partner skips town with their rent money. Quarrels with Zack’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Nina devolve into verbal threats and physical aggression to the point where she moves in with an aunt and uncle, eventually filing for child support as she more or less raises their son on her own.

The specter of domestic violence haunts Kiere and Liu as well, binding the three men as much as their passion for skateboarding. Recently turned 18, Keire yearns for a job and a life independent of the family he feels doesn’t truly understand him. Yet, beneath the easy smiles and teenage restlessness, he wrestles with his love for an abusive father whose sudden death remains a source of guilt over their hostile parting. Liu opts for an elliptical approach to sharing his own experience with parental abuse, turning to his brother and mother to discuss the trauma dealt by his stepfather.

Minding the Gap indicates that the violence its leads experience is normal, not exceptional. Rockford ranked as the second most dangerous city in the U.S. with a population under 200,000 in 2015; it got bumped up to number one a year later by Law Street Media, a news site that releases annual “Crime in America” lists. Rockford Police Department statistics attributed about a quarter of the city’s violent crime in 2015 to domestic violence incidents. While more recent data shows incremental improvement in Rockford’s unemployment and violent crime rates, a childhood under these conditions makes escape seem both necessary and impossible.

The escapade that kicks off Minding the Gap encapsulates that contradiction, as Liu, Kiere and Zack literally strive to rise above the city in which they feel trapped but succumb to doubt and fear. The heavens they long to touch remain stubbornly out-of-reach.

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“You cannot change the past,” Liu’s mother Mengyue says after he interviews her. Movies can’t change the past either, but they can let people control how it is understood and remembered.

By leaning on first-person recollections, Liu grants Minding the Gap’s subjects not only the agency to choose what to divulge, but also the opportunity to process thoughts and feelings they might otherwise bury. They joke, rant, confess and cry in displays of vulnerability that the director attributes to his transparent process. His candidness extends to viewers, as Liu never hides his personal involvement in the narrative. He can be heard asking questions, and occasionally, people address him directly while on-camera. Shifting aspect ratios and lenses further expose the movie’s constructed nature, reflecting the passage of time and Liu’s evolution as a filmmaker.

Even as it adopts the impersonal style of a procedural, epitomized by the use of on-screen countdowns and velocity and distance indicators, Apollo 11 distorts reality to whittle a nine-day trip down to 93 minutes (coincidentally the same length as Minding the Gap). Twenty-four hours vanish in a dissolve from Earth on Day 2 to Earth, shifted right, on Day 3. Split-screens bridge Houston’s mission control and the lunar surface, letting audiences visit two different places in different times simultaneously.

Apollo 11 begins with a flurry of images and videos that chart Armstrong, Collins and Buzz Aldrin’s parallel paths to the moon: military service, weddings, children, flight training, prior space ventures. Minding the Gap ends with a similar sequence where Zack, Liu and Keire grow up before our eyes, years passing in an instant. Film theorist Sergei Eisenstein argues in The Film Sense, as translated from Russian by Jay Leyda, that:

“The juxtaposition of…partial details in a given montage construction calls to life and forces into the light that general quality in which each detail has participated and which binds together all the details into a whole, namely, into that generalized image, wherein the creator, followed by the spectator, experiences the theme.”

Put simply, montage doesn’t just link disparate shots; it gives meaning to their relationship, creating unity out of uncertainty. The time-compression montages in Apollo 11 and Minding the Gap not only convey the change their subjects have undergone, but impose a sense of direction onto that change. Events and choices that in actuality occurred haphazardly coalesce into a coherent story.

After returning to Earth and waiting out a 21-day quarantine, the Apollo 11 crew crossed the country in a national celebratory tour that ended in Los Angeles with a banquet hosted by President Richard Nixon. According to James R. Hansen’s biography First Man: The Life of Neil Armstrong, Armstrong recalled in a speech he gave at that dinner a “proudly waved but uncarefully scribbled” sign he noticed at the New York City ticker-tape parade that opened the tour. The sign read, “Through you, we touched the moon.”

Through film, people can step outside the bounds of space and time to revisit the past, to see something old from a new vantage point. Apollo 11 can’t wholly shed the messy political and historical forces that governed the moon landing, but the event can be less defined by them, the external noise quieted so we can marvel again at men soaring into the unknown and the thousands of people whose collective effort made their ascendance possible. A new generation can touch the moon.

Decades later, a boy rolls into a skate park in Illinois and wills himself into the air, one axle of the board under his feet balanced precariously on the edge of a bench. Freeze at the right moment, and it looks like he’s touching the sky.

Angela Woolsey (@redporchremnant) has worked as a general assignment reporter for a local newspaper in Northern Virginia since graduating from George Mason University with a B.A. in English. Her love of movies and TV was forged in the fires of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Lost,’ respectively. She also reads books, though never as many as she would like, and roots for the Washington Nationals.

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