The best suspense sequence in any 2018 movie and the current front-runner for best suspense sequence in any 2019 movie depict the same event, and that event is notable primarily for having happened almost 50 years ago, and because everybody in the world already know how it ends. I refer to the 20 July, 1968 arrival of the Apollo 11 mission to the surface of the moon, which served as the white-knuckle climax to last year's First Man, and does exactly the same thing for the new documentary Apollo 11, which like the previous movie does such a good job at getting into the very present-tense feeling of historical events that it actually does seem like Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin" might really just die right there, crashed onto an alien rock. Where First Man got there through a profound, nauseating subjectivity, Apollo 11 goes in exactly the opposite direction: it's entirely objective, positioning us as helpless observers, Godlike in our knowledge but not at all in our helpless inability to do anything about the numbers counting down much too quickly, while a little red light keeps flashing. Two very different approaches, one uncanny alchemical power to make the most exhilarating cinema out of the most embalmed historical event of the 20th Century.

Till now, anyway. One of the things Apollo 11 turns out to be sublimely good at is making the entire eight days of the titular mission seem like a constant drip of near-crises, with seemingly every single press of a button the result of untold hours of mathematical calculations, and if any one variable was wrong, or the timing off by even a few seconds, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins would die the most novel deaths in the history of the human race. In a lifetime of being fascinated by the 1960s space race, I don't know that I had ever before this film truly felt how horribly difficult it must have been to get people to the moon and back: how many different specific things had to all go right all of the time. Apollo 11 nails that feeling, evoking in its headlong rush of footage just how much the moon launch was one damn thing after another, for more than a week. It's genuinely a bit miraculous, and it somehow manages to be the freshest, most vital cinematic treatment of the Apollo program, a half-century after that program's greatest triumph. Not that I want to say anything bad against the other two major Apollo documentaries, 1989's For All Mankind, and 2007's In the Shadow of the Moon. What's impressive about these three films is how each of them manages to carve out its own particular niche, feeling in no way redundant with the others: For All Mankind is reflective and spiritual, In the Shadow of the Moon is a deliberate act of anti-romance, grounding the Apollo program in basic human experience.

Apollo 11 is, then, all about the nuts and bolts of stuff happening. It is the most tightly constrained of the three, beginning a few hours before the 16 July launch of the mission, and ending with the astronauts free from their two weeks in quarantine back on Earth. Its approach is entirely free of editorialising or even any context: it is the direct cinema version of an Apollo documentary, adopting the non-fiction form that had become so important over the 1960s. We watch people do things and hear them talk, always as though there wasn't even a camera present, and the insights of the film are mostly those that we can pick up from our privileged position as flies on the wall (the single exception: the three astronauts are introduced with a montage of personal photographs). It is a you-are-there approach that makes the events of July 1969 spill out with no sense of History's Weight; this is a film about a very complicated, very stressful process, allowing us to watch a people work themselves into a sweaty mess making sure that process comes off without a hitch.

The film exists due to the labors of director-editor Todd Douglas Miller, who received access to one of the most extraordinary treasure troves of archival footage any filmmaker could ever daydream about getting: a forgotten cache of 70mm footage of the launch and recovery, along with 11,000 hours of unsorted audio recordings from the mission. Miller and his team set about restoring that footage, as well as 35mm and 16mm sources from inside Mission Control and the spacecraft itself, to a bright, shiny luster, as well as combing through all of that audio and, wherever possible, marrying it to the appropriate footage. This labor ended in a 93-minute feature that is among the most admirable jobs of film editing I have ever seen, invisibly combining all of this material into a perfectly straightforward narrative spiked, at appropriate moments, by animated graphics covering important maneuvers that couldn't be filmed, on account of Apollo 11 being tens of thousands of miles away from the nearest camera crew.

It's a really wonderful bit of direct cinema, Especially during the opening quarter or so, before the launch, a remarkable tour of Mission Control and the civilian crowds gathered miles away from the launch site to watch. Nothing in the film better captures living history, the look of people in 1969 polished and brightened to appear like you could walk right outside of the theater and meet them. In fact, this opening somehow manages to be more interesting than what happens after the launch (when the number of available cameras and thus the range of footage was severely curtailed), creating a vivid, immediate sense that makes the anticipation of the launch more palpable than I've ever seen it. Miller's use of a tastefully small countdown clock helps bind this together and also make it more tense (nothing more suspenseful than a literal ticking clock, after all), while providing us all the context we really need.

Not to say that the events after the launch become boring: the constant bustle of human activity, perfectly showcased as the ant-like behavior of many individuals who all know exactly what they need to do every second, is an equally great example of the camera standing as an observer, and the editor allowing the footage to speak entirely for itself, without needing to tart it up in any way. It's just less new: undoubtedly, the tension Miller wrings out of the footage is on a previously unimaginable level, but the fact is, once we get Armstrong on the moon to take his one small step, the film has to cope with the fact that its triumphant climax is also made up of its only stale footage. But whatever. This is exquisite filmmaking, one of the most amazing achievements in documentary editing I've ever seen, and blessed by a wonderful score by Matt Morton using synthesizers from the 1960s to create a soundscape of dreamy drones and suspenseful digital heartbeats, all in service to bringing back the majesty and terror of a historical achievement that had already been safely neutered and domesticated ten years before I was born. For restoring that literally awesome power back to the Apollo 11 mission, Apollo 11 would have all of my admiration even it it wasn't such a superb bit of documentary craftsmanship.