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Just how unique is CNN's 'Apollo 11' documentary? Very

'Apollo 11' Archive Producer Stephen Slater and others describe the previously unseen archival footage at the heart of one of 2019's best documentaries

SALT LAKE CITY — “It’s like the Zapruder footage. Every single frame of this stuff’s already been pored over.”

That’s how David Fear, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, described his thoughts when he first noticed “Apollo 11” on this year’s Sundance Film Festival slate. Every documentary about the ’60s, or about the space race, has reused the same Apollo 11 clips for decades. Cultural fatigue sets in. What else can we see that hasn’t already been seen?

In the case of “Apollo 11,” quite a lot.

The documentary, which premiered at Sundance last January, is re-airing on CNN on July 20 (the moon landing’s 50th anniversary) and returning to select theaters nationwide that same day. It examines the eight days of the Apollo 11 mission, and is composed almost entirely of archival footage from the mission. That means no talking head interviews and no new narration. The National Archives also granted the “Apollo 11” filmmakers with huge amounts of pristine, previously unseen 70 millimeter footage from the mission.

The result is an immersive, spellbinding, 360-degree account of humankind’s first moon landing unlike anything that’s ever been shown before.

“And the fact that you get that without narration, without talking heads, with very little mention of the outside world, is phenomenal, it’s unprecedented,” Fear told the Deseret News. “And to me, that just seems like the most beautifully unique way to recount something that’s been recounted a million times, and yet make it feel totally new and fresh and unique, the way I imagined it felt fresh and new and unique and groundbreaking in 1969.”

A scene from the documentary film "Apollo 11."
A scene from the documentary film "Apollo 11."
Neon CNN Films

The documentary won a special jury award for editing at Sundance. In a recent email, Kim Yutani, the festival’s programming director, told the Deseret News, “It’s rare that you see something cut from such whole archival cloth.”

“I knew the historical facts, especially because my father worked in the aerospace industry,” she added. “But I was surprised by how emotionally invested I became, and how in awe I was of the accomplishment.”

Stephen Slater, the film’s archive producer, told the Deseret News that he and “Apollo 11” director Todd Douglas Miller had already been working on the film for months when the National Archives told them about its previously unseen footage. That treasure trove, Slater said, included 160 reels of 70 mm footage (approximately one-third of it from the Apollo 11 mission) and more than 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio.

“We were just stunned,” Slater recalled. “It’s the kind of thing you just dream of finding. There were rumors that there might be stuff like that out there, but I honestly thought that a lot of that had been destroyed.”

Slater and his team undertook the enormous task of syncing the archived video with the uncatalogued audio. Sometimes, he said, it came together nicely, but “It’s essentially random, what survived, and what you can add audio to.”

The end product is spellbinding, though — or, as Fear writes in his Rolling Stone review, “a revelation.” From the scientists in the mission control room, to the hordes of onlookers at Cocoa Beach, to astronaut Michael Collins flying around the dark side of the moon as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down, “Apollo 11” effectively captures the scope of the achievement. And while there are some other Apollo 11 documentaries coming out right now — including offerings from PBS and National Geographic — this version is the only one to rely so completely on archival footage. It doesn’t just tell you about the past. Instead, it puts you there.

“I think it’s the greatest story ever told, in a way,” Slater said of the Apollo 11 mission. “I know that sounds like hyperbole, but that we could do that 50 years ago, and you think of the things that we couldn’t do, like mobile phones and communications. Yet we could land on the moon.”