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Film Review: “First to the Moon” Is Yet Another Great Tribute to NASA’s Heyday

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 4th, 2019

Film poster: “First to the Moon”

First to the Moon (Paul J. Hildebrandt, 2018) out of 4 stars.

What a marvelous cinematic year it has been for America’s once-great space program! Since October, 2018. we have seen four films about two Apollo missions, #8 and #11. In order of release, they are: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s brilliant short documentary Earthrise, about Apollo 8, where the astronauts did a dry-run orbit of the moon without landing; Damien Chazelle’s far murkier First Man, a feature-length narrative about Apollo 11, where the astronauts, led by Neil Armstrong, actually set foot on the moon; Todd Douglas Miller’s feature-length documentary Apollo 11, which expertly tells the same story, focusing exclusively on the actual takeoff and flight and using beautiful large-format footage shot back in 1969; and now, rolling out today on iTunes and Amazon for your viewing pleasure, Paul J. Hildebrandt’s feature documentary First to the Moon, also about Apollo 8. Despite the movie’s excessive use of scored music and, at two hours, slight bloat, it nicely expands on the story already told once before in Vaughan-Lee’s film.

From top to bottom: Bill Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell ©Gravitas Ventures

Amazingly, all three Apollo 8 astronauts – Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell (who would later command the ill-fated Apollo 13) – are very much alive and lucid, though two are now over 90 and one is 85. It is their voices that guide us through the details, recounting their own humble origins and rise to the elite ranks of NASA’s astronauts. This was a time – the middle of the Cold War – during which the nation was fully invested in sending men to the moon, to show up the Soviet Union and demonstrate the superiority of American know-how. There was also the wonder of traveling into the unknown, but from a governmental perspective, it was mostly about competition. For Anders, Borman and Lovell, whose six-day mission left on December 21, 1968, it was the chance of a lifetime and an opportunity to expand the horizons of their knowledge. Seeing how small the earth looked from space changed their perspectives on the importance of global unity. Too bad none of them ever became politicians …

Making good use of a veritable treasure trove of archival material, including shots of younger versions of our protagonists and the photos and video they shot while in space, director Hildebrandt walks us through the highlights of the voyage, as well as of NASA’s history up to that point. Where Vaughan-Lee’s film waxed philosophical, Hildebrandt’s takes a more fact-based approach (though not without its own share of metaphysics to accompany the physics). It was a glorious moment in time, deserving of all the current retrospectives. I can’t wait for the next movie. More, please!

The Saturn V rocket that powered the Apollo missions ©Gravitas Ventures

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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