July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, part of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission — and 50 years is long enough that many people alive today have only seen the moon landing as replayed news footage in documentaries or in history class. But what actually motivated the astronauts, scientists, technicians, politicians, and families who made that scientific feat possible? What kind of culture drives people to travel to the moon?
There are many stories to be told about the moon landing — and about the decades before it, which gave people the idea to go and then made them keep trying, even in difficult and dangerous conditions. Here are nine films that help fill in those blanks, and are well worth watching even if you’re not a space superfan.
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
A Trip to the Moon (or Le voyage dans la lune, originally) isn’t about the moon landing; it came out in 1902, decades before NASA was founded in the late ’50s. But Georges Méliès’s seminal film was a pioneering work of its own. It’s considered one of the earliest science fiction movies, inspired partly by stories from writers like Jules Verne.
Running just under 13 minutes total, A Trip to the Moon is about a group of space explorers who travel to the moon, encounter a tribe of strange beings, capture one, and return to Earth. Méliès himself played the crew’s leader, Professor Barbenfouillis.
The film is very much in keeping with its time, when the medium of cinema was changing rapidly and when the whole world was obsessed with scientific discovery, exploration, and expeditions to the farthest reaches of the planet. It pokes fun at 19th-century science (tres outrée!) and imperialism, and it spearheaded new ways of creating special effects in films. It also suggested (as did Verne and other science fiction writers before him) that space travel and moon landings would one day be possible, planting the seeds of the idea in people’s minds. So you might say that in some small way, it foreshadowed the big event 67 years before it happened.
Apollo 11 (2019)
“Iconic” is an overused word, but the images recorded during the Apollo 11 mission deserve it: the blast-off moment, the American flag planted on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin’s helmet. Those images have come to represent hope.
Apollo 11, directed by Todd Douglas Miller, harnesses these visuals to powerfully retell the story of man’s first trip to the moon. But Miller’s film does a lot more than just retread familiar history. Using never-before-seen footage and sound from the mission that has been meticulously scanned and restored, Apollo 11 moves from launch to safe return in a way that makes you feel as if you’re living through it. There’s minimal onscreen text, a couple of very simple illustrations to show the craft’s trajectory, and no talking heads. The result is an extraordinary, grand, and awe-inspiring film, particularly if you can catch it in IMAX, where the larger-format images create the feeling of actually being on the moon.
How to watch it: Apollo 11 is playing in regular and IMAX theaters around the country; check the film’s website for a screening near you. It’s well worth seeing on the big screen, but if you can’t get to a theater, you can also digitally rent the movie from Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, or iTunes.
The Dish (2000)
The Dish was Australia’s top-grossing film in 2000, and no wonder: It told a slightly fictionalized version of a true story, in which an Australian observatory played a key role in making sure the world could watch humankind’s first steps on the moon in 1969. During the Apollo 11 mission, NASA worked with Australian technicians to transmit communication and video signals back to Earth — and the radio telescope they ended up using was in the middle of a sheep farm.
True to form (this is an Australian film, after all), The Dish is more or less a comedy, though a very heartfelt and occasionally heart-pounding one. Anything could have gone wrong at any second, and it was only through hard work, expertise, and a lot of luck that the Apollo 11 mission succeeded. The Dish underlines what a lot of movies about the moon landing, as well as Neil Armstrong’s famous “one giant leap for mankind” declaration, have always aimed to convey: The moon landing wasn’t just an American triumph but something for the whole world to celebrate.
First Man (2018)
First Man, from director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) and screenwriter Josh Singer (The Post, Spotlight), is less concerned with delivering a triumphalist portrayal of the moon landing than with painting a portrait of astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) as he saw himself.
Based on Armstrong’s authorized biography, First Man presents a historic moment through the lens of an intimate personal experience, reminding us that events that appear triumphant in history’s rearview mirror often come at the expense of pain and great personal sacrifice shouldered by real people. We’re allowed to see the moon landing through Armstrong’s eyes — but in return, the film asks us to respect what he went through to get there.
For All Mankind (1989)
For All Mankind is a true classic, a documentary worth pairing with Apollo 11. (Note: Don’t mistake it for the upcoming, unrelated TV series by the same name, created by Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore.) Director Al Reinert (who also co-wrote the screenplay for 1995’s Apollo 13) was a journalist who became interested in the Apollo program after finding out while researching a story that NASA had archived millions of hours of footage shot by its astronauts, and the public hadn’t seen it.
Together with his editor Susan Korda, Reinert took on a mammoth task: The pair spent a full decade combing through 6 million feet of film and 80 hours of interviews with NASA astronauts (from a number of Apollo missions, including 11) to make a film that gives audiences an intimate window into the experience of flying a mission to the moon. With a score by Brian Eno, For All Mankind focuses on the beauty of Earth as seen from space.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Technically, Hidden Figures isn’t about the first moon landing. But it’s important all the same. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe star in an inspirational, family-friendly historical drama about three black women whose work at NASA was instrumental in putting John Glenn into orbit around Earth in 1962, an important precursor to the moon landing. The cast also includes Mahershala Ali, Kevin Costner, and Kirsten Dunst.
The movie is delightful and surprisingly timely. Hidden Figures blends contemporary conversations about race, gender, diversity in STEM fields, and patriotism in a thought-provoking historical package. It challenges common ideas about who made great strides in science during the space race. And most of all, it boasts three terrific leading ladies.
The Last Man on the Moon (2014)
In 1972, only three years after the Apollo 11 mission, Gene Cernan became the 12th and last man to walk on the moon. The Last Man on the Moon is Cernan’s story, constructed mostly from interviews with him and with other astronauts. It paints a fascinating picture of the Apollo era, during which astronauts were superstar celebrities who were hailed as heroes.
The Last Man on the Moon also helps to show how American attention started to veer away from the space race and toward other matters, and the effect that had on the astronauts who’d lived and worked through the period. Cernan, who died in 2017, is our guide, showing us why the missions mattered so much at the time not just to the astronauts involved in them, but also to the American public.
Operation Avalanche (2016)
Strictly speaking, Operation Avalanche is not a movie about the moon landing. Instead, it’s a mockumentary — or is it? — about conspiracy theories around the faking of the moon landing, an important part of the lore surrounding the historic milestone. Director Matt Johnson co-stars with Owen Williams; the two play CIA agents who are sent to infiltrate NASA and find a mole who’s been leaking secrets. While there, they stumble upon an elaborate plot to pretend to land on the moon.
That the moon landings were hoaxes, plots by NASA to mislead the public, has long been a subject of speculation among conspiracy theorists; the most popular one holds that the venerable director Stanley Kubrick — who did, after all, make 2001: A Space Odyssey the year before the Apollo 11 mission — did the deed for NASA. Operation Avalanche takes a playful run at those theories, managing to be both a funny thriller and a quiet commentary on an age of skepticism and conspiracy theories run amok.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The Right Stuff is set before the events of the Apollo 11 mission, based on a novel by Tom Wolfe about military test pilots who worked in aeronautical research at Edwards Air Force Base and then in NASA’s Mercury projects from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. With an all-star cast — including Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid and Barbara Hershey — it has the feeling of a sweeping epic, one that captures (albeit in a somewhat fictionalized form) the feeling of the early years of the space race and the American drive to prevail.
The Right Stuff was a box office flop, but it was praised for its flight footage and nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography (though it lost both those races, it still took home four trophies, including Best Original Score). It’s a solid, exciting, and compelling introduction to the postwar optimism, sense of duty, and yearning for exploration that propelled many of the participants in the space race toward unbelievably difficult and dangerous work.