Of All Mankind
Apollo 11 is a timely and important exploration of openness and globalism
During the climatic scene of Apollo 11, Todd Douglas Miller’s excellent new documentary about NASA’s moon landing mission, the filmmaker cuts to a scene in Mission Control boasting a surfeit of celebratory American flags waving triumphantly in the air. In its grainy film stock presentation it’s as if Childe Hassam’s The Avenue in the Rain has been transposed into the sterile white interior of the room. There is plenty of good reason for this happy burst of patriotic fervor. The Americans have just successfully sent men to the moon and returned them safely back home. This type of accomplishment can all too easily, and very often is, the source of a petty cultural chauvinism. Resting gently under the surface of Miller’s film, however, if we’re to engage in a Straussian reading of the picture, is an alternative, expansive and cosmopolitan view of what it means to be an American and what America means in the wider world.
The American flag and American achievement are inescapable parts of Apollo 11. At no time, however, does the film sag into sloppy rah-rah superpatriotism. Instead, Miller often pairs images of the flag or talk of American brilliance with a message stressing humanity’s common heritage. Take, for instance, the two most iconic moments of the moon landing: Neil Armstrong’s immortal words as he descends the lunar module, and the planting of the American flag on the surface of the moon. Both instances feature the flag with an accompanying message of cosmopolitan universalism. As Armstrong first steps upon the moon’s surface, the American flag featured prominently upon the sleeve of his spacesuit, his words (“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”) emphasize a common humanity not a particular nationality or ethnic distinction. Later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erect the Lunar Flag Assembly kit. Miller couples this act with a cut to a plaque the astronauts will leave on the moon. The plaque bears the inscription: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
All mankind: America as the population, not the set. Other instances of this worldly pattern abound in the film. When one of the astronauts informs Mission Control that he can see the entirety of the North American continent one of his counterparts adds, “I don’t know what I’m looking at but it’s certainly beautiful.” Geographic limits and borders, the film says, are not what is important about planet earth. What is important is the all encompassing, expansive beauty of the whole. Indeed, Miller frequently shows images of earth as seen from the space. From this vantage point all notions of nationality or planetary division collapse. Finally, Miller includes Apollo 11’s concluding broadcast to earth before reentry. Here Buzz Aldrin encapsulates the film’s cosmopolitan message: “I’d like to discuss with you a few of the more symbolic aspects of the flight and our mission, Apollo 11. As we’ve been discussing the events that have been taking place in the past two or three days here onboard our spacecraft we’ve come to the conclusion that this is far more than three men on a voyage to the moon. More still than the efforts of a government or an industry team. More even than the efforts of one nation. We feel that this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown.”
Apollo 11, then, is more than a simple film about a great scientific achievement or a testament to one nation’s glorious power and innovation. It is, rather, a statement of the idea of America as a country open to all, a nation that draws its incredible strength from the wells of a deep globalist creed.
Perhaps some viewers will object to this reading of the film, noting the monochromatic skin tone of all involved in the spaceflight. All three astronauts are white men. So too the overwhelming majority of the crew back home at Mission Control and Launch Complex 39. While the United State’s imperfect and unjust application of its founding doctrine that all men are created equal should never be forgotten or minimized, this reading of the film lacks proper historical understanding. The ancestors of all involved in the Apollo program, presumably Europeans, it must be remembered, were historically engaged in constant slaughter of each other whether it be in the centuries-long wars of religion or, more recently, in the world wars of the twentieth century. Further, Apollo 11’s soundtrack is populated with the varying American accents of NASA workers involved in the mission. We hear both the southern drawl and the aristocratic New England voice. These are the descendants of people, recall, who just a short century before the events of Apollo 11 butchered each other on the fields of Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. Now, however, in multicultural union, they cooperate with each other to deliver one of mankind’s greatest scientific achievements.
Apollo 11 is powerful exploration of the essential American ideals of openness, globalism, cosmopolitanism, and universalist internationalism. It transcends its station as a mere document of science nonfiction and breathes cinematic life into the words of the world’s greatest American theorist: “The great wisdom of incorporating foreign elements into our body politic, are founded not upon any genealogical or ethnological theory, however learned, but upon the broad fact of a common nature. Man is man the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity. A smile or a tear has no nationality. Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man.”