11 Apollo movies and documentaries to watch on the moon landing's 50th anniversary

Apollo 11 movie screengrabNEON/CNN films/statement pictures

Exactly 50 years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped through the hatch of a tiny, rickety spacecraft, drifted down a metal ladder, and set foot on the dusty surface of the moon.

That moon landing has made for great cinema ever since. Nobody has been back to the moon since the Apollo program ended in 1972, but directors, producers, actors, and documentary-makers have been inspired by the video footage and audio recordings from the missions for decades.

Their work captures the drama, humor, suspense, and tragedy of these early days of space exploration. Here are 11 Apollo movies and documentaries to watch this week.
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In "First Man," Ryan Gosling plays a young, ambitious Neil Armstrong as he works as a test pilot, grieves the loss of his 2-year-old daughter, and barely escapes death — twice.

In "First Man," Ryan Gosling plays a young, ambitious Neil Armstrong as he works as a test pilot, grieves the loss of his 2-year-old daughter, and barely escapes death — twice.

The film, based on the non-fiction book by Armstrong's official biographer James Hansen, tells the true story of the decade leading up to Armstrong's historic "small step" on the moon. It's also the story of the team that got him there.

"When you have hundreds of thousands of people all doing their job a little better than they have to, you get an improvement in performance," Armstrong said after the Apollo 11 mission. "And that's the only reason we could have pulled this whole thing off."

Stream the movie on iTunes, Amazon, or Vudu.

"Hidden Figures" can be seen as a sort of Apollo prequel, since the three protagonists it depicts — Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson — all worked on NASA's next ventures after helping to send astronaut John Glenn into space.

"Hidden Figures" can be seen as a sort of Apollo prequel, since the three protagonists it depicts — Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson — all worked on NASA's next ventures after helping to send astronaut John Glenn into space.

The women — played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe — were responsible for critical computing and mathematics work that helped to launch Glenn into orbit.

Jackson, Vaughan, and Johnson made critical calculations for the 1962 mission, which placed the US as a major contender in the space race. The film is based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly and addresses racial segregation and gender barriers in STEM (and throughout American life) during the 1960s.

The movie ends after Glenn's launch, but the three women continued their work with NASA through the Apollo missions. Johnson went on to calculate the trajectory for the Apollo 11 flight and compute backup navigational charts for the astronauts to use if electronics failed (which they almost did). Her research later ensured the safe return of the Apollo 13 crew after the explosion that sidelined their mission.

Stream the movie from Fox or rent it at Amazon, iTunes, or Vudu.

Several documentaries about the moon-landing are also worth your time. "Apollo 11," which came out this year, uses previously unseen 70mm film footage and audio recordings from the time.

Several documentaries about the moon-landing are also worth your time. "Apollo 11," which came out this year, uses previously unseen 70mm film footage and audio recordings from the time.

This intimate new look into the work of the astronauts and the Mission Control team comes from digitization work done by the National Archives.

The documentary details the precise movements and math that had to line up perfectly to make the moon landing happen ⁠— not to mention the teamwork and emotional grit.

"By preserving and making accessible these film reels, they have given the world an unprecedented and breathtaking glimpse of this historic milestone," US archivist David Ferriero said of the National Archives team in a press release.

See it in theater (IMAX for the full experience) or get it on Amazon, iTunes, or Vudu.

Throughout this month, PBS is airing two in-depth documentary programs about the space race. "Chasing the Moon" documents 13 years of the space race in three episodes.

Throughout this month, PBS is airing two in-depth documentary programs about the space race. "Chasing the Moon" documents 13 years of the space race in three episodes.

Previously lost or overlooked archival material tells the story of the American astronauts, Soviet engineers, and civil rights protesters who defined the race to the moon.

Watch it on PBS.

The documentary "8 Days: To the Moon and Back" goes inside the Apollo 11 spacecraft by matching recently declassified audio with studio reenactments and CGI.

The documentary "8 Days: To the Moon and Back" goes inside the Apollo 11 spacecraft by matching recently declassified audio with studio reenactments and CGI.

"From these unique audio recordings, we hear, and now can see, the Apollo 11 crew's real fears and excitement from within the spacecraft, offering an intimate look into the breathtaking and awe-inspiring journey of the most important and celebrated mission ever flown," Bill Margol, PBS' senior director of programming and development, said in a statement.

Catch it on PBS.

The documentary "For All Mankind," which came out in 1989, covers the nine crewed Apollo missions, with narration from 13 astronauts.

The documentary "For All Mankind," which came out in 1989, covers the nine crewed Apollo missions, with narration from 13 astronauts.

The live broadcast of the Apollo 11 moon landing was grainy at best; plus, most home TVs at the time were tiny and didn't show color. So director Al Reinert decided to dig through millions of feet of unaired Apollo footage and blow it up from 16 mm to 35.

The result was this Oscar-nominated documentary.

Rent it from Amazon, iTunes, or Vudu.

The 2017 documentary "Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo" goes behind the scenes to tell the stories of some of the 400,000 people whose efforts made the moon landing possible.

The 2017 documentary "Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo" goes behind the scenes to tell the stories of some of the 400,000 people whose efforts made the moon landing possible.

The view from Houston was clouded in cigarette smoke, and this film provides a peek through the haze via archival footage and interviews with a range of Mission Control staffers.

The people interviewed recount how a team of flight directors, flight controllers, and astronauts sent the first missions to the moon and saved the astronauts of Apollo 13.

Watch it on Netflix.

Other films focus on other iconic missions in the Apollo program. In "Apollo's Daring Mission," all three astronauts from Apollo 8, which sent people to orbit the moon for the first time, describe their experience.

Other films focus on other iconic missions in the Apollo program. In "Apollo's Daring Mission," all three astronauts from Apollo 8, which sent people to orbit the moon for the first time, describe their experience.

Apollo 8 was originally an Earth-orbit mission, but pressure to catch up to the Soviet Union's space progress pushed NASA to change it to a moon orbit. The NOVA documentary describes the novel technologies and feats of engineering making their first manned debut in space.

"To me this would be a mini Lewis and Clark expedition, exploring new territory on the Moon's far side," Apollo 8 astronaut James Lovell said last year.

Check it out on PBS.

"Apollo 13" dramatizes the explosion that cut NASA's third moon landing attempt short.

"Apollo 13" dramatizes the explosion that cut NASA's third moon landing attempt short.

Just over five minutes after liftoff, the crew of Apollo 13 felt their spacecraft shake. It turned out to be a minor problem, but an ominous warning of dangers to come. Three days later, minutes after the crew wrapped up an in-flight TV broadcast, an oxygen tank exploded.

This is when Tom Hanks (playing astronaut Jim Lovell) delivers the famous line, "Houston, we have a problem."

Over the next three days, NASA and the Apollo 13 astronauts made returning to Earth alive the sole focus of the mission.

Stream Ron Howard's rendition on iTunes, Amazon, or Vudu.

Hanks and Howard went on to co-produce the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon." The docudrama maps each stage in the Apollo missions from different perspectives.

Hanks and Howard went on to co-produce the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon." The docudrama maps each stage in the Apollo missions from different perspectives.

The first half focuses on the lead-up to the moon landing and the second follows the rest of the Apollo program through its cancellation and final mission in 1972.

Watch it on HBO.

"The Last Man on the Moon" follows astronaut Gene Cernan from his suburban Chicago origins to the dusty lunar surface. Nobody has followed in his footsteps since.

"The Last Man on the Moon" follows astronaut Gene Cernan from his suburban Chicago origins to the dusty lunar surface. Nobody has followed in his footsteps since.

This documentary offers perhaps the most intimate look ever into an Apollo astronaut's life.

In 1972, Cernan was the last Apollo 17 astronaut to walk the moon's surface. He left his daughter's initials in the dust beside his footprints. Nobody has visited the moon since.

Stream it on Netflix.

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