Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Apollo 11’s Forgotten Virtues

There’s a short scene near the end of “Apollo 11,” the thrilling new documentary about history’s greatest spaceflight, in which Mike Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong make a TV broadcast on their way home from the moon.

“We’d like to give a special thanks to all those Americans who built the spacecraft, who did the construction, design, the tests, and put their heart and all their abilities into the [space]crafts,” says Armstrong. “To those people tonight we give a special thank you.”

The film cuts to a shot of thousands of technicians assembled in an immense hanger, beaming with pride. At the zenith of his fame, the hero proves his worth by honoring those to whom the glory is truly owed.

I watched “Apollo 11” twice this week, and came away with two very different impressions. What awed me the first time was scale: The crawler-transporter that moves the Saturn V rocket to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The rocket itself, standing 363 feet tall. People lining up for miles to watch the launch. The shuddering noise and force of liftoff. Speeds accelerating to 24,000 miles an hour. Re-entry temperatures hitting 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The smallness of Earth, the stillness of the moon, the limitlessness of space.

Everything is immense, mind-boggling. Having been born nearly a year after the last Apollo mission took flight, I have trouble wrapping my head around it. Reality isn’t supposed to be this epic.

By contrast, what I mainly noticed the second time around were the intimate sides of the endeavor. The look of suppressed nervousness on Collins’s face as he is being suited up on the morning of the flight. Biometric data showing Armstrong’s heart pounding at 156 beats a minute at the moment Eagle touches down on the lunar surface, belying his reputation as Mr. Coolstone. A shadow of deep melancholy that seems to overcome Aldrin as he speaks to his family once the mission is over.

Three men are going to try to fly to the moon. Three billion people will lionize them if they succeed; lament (or mourn) them if they fail; mock them if they screw up. No pressure.

How do they cope? In last year’s biopic, “First Man,” Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is portrayed as a 1950s guy stuck in a 1960s world. Repression is the key to his emotional composure, achieved at the expense of family life. The 2007 documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon,” which mixes footage of the Apollo missions with interviews with the astronauts (minus Armstrong) as older men, is more revealing. Everyone is his own man; each one deals with his fears in his own way. There’s more than one formula for the Right Stuff.

But “Apollo 11” offers an additional insight, particularly when it comes to Armstrong. Asked by a reporter to describe his feelings “as far as responsibilities of representing mankind on this trip,” Armstrong brings the question down to size: “It’s a job that we collectively said was possible, that we could do, and of course the nation itself is backing us, so we just sincerely hope that we measure up to that.”

The answer is quintessential Armstrong: He’s the guy who prefers to turn poetry into prose. The one time he seems least himself is when he utters the line that’s supposed to immortalize him: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Dropping the “a” before “man” winds up being his sole extraterrestrial mistake.

It’s not that Armstrong is incapable of eloquence. It’s that his manner of eloquence is direct, gracious and above all modest when everyone else — Walter Cronkite and Richard Nixon in particular — strains for grandiloquence. To borrow a line from Barack Obama, he knows too well that he didn’t build that. His sense of his place in history is that he’s mainly an accident of it.

And there lies the greatest marvel of the Apollo program: Not so much the size of the endeavor, or the machines that were built to accomplish it, but rather the quality of self-effacement among the men most associated with its success. Armstrong, easily one of the most celebrated men of the last half-century, refused to become a celebrity. He kept his politics to himself. He made no oracular pronouncements. He did not amass fabulous wealth.

He stayed humble, and human, in the era of relentless puffery and self-promotion. This, too, feels as bygone as the Saturn V, the Right Stuff, and the “one small step”— and as missed.

How do we reclaim it?

That’s a moonshot-scale question, but here’s a worthy contribution. As I was writing this column, I got a call from Ken Burns, a friend and renowned documentary maker, who told me about a new prize endowed by Boston philanthropists Jonathan and Jeannie Lavine in collaboration with the Library of Congress and The Better Angels Society. The award, which is currently accepting applications through June 1, will annually grant $200,000 to a documentary filmmaker in the final stages of producing a feature film.

“We are in a situation right now where we are dialectically preoccupied: red state or blue state, gay or straight, rich or poor, male or female,” Ken told me by way of explaining the prize’s significance. He’s looking for an antidote. “Films that will reach a broad audience and speak to the enduring themes of what we are and what we share in common.” Winning entries, he added, will focus on American history, be nonpartisan, “Homeric in scope but intimate in details.”

“Apollo 11” is such a film. Go see it. Now, more please.

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Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post. @BretStephensNYT Facebook

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