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What to watch to celebrate Apollo 11's 50th anniversary

There's plenty of Moon landing media to binge.
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What better way to celebrate the Moon landing than to gather your family around the couch and relive the experience? Even if you weren't lucky enough to see Neil Armstrong plant his feet on the Moon fifty years ago, there are plenty of films and shows that'll let you recapture the magic of that moment. And if you're not eager to honor the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's momentous mission (you monster), it's still worth reminding yourself of what NASA, and mankind writ large, can do under pressure. The planet might be in the midst of a political and environmental meltdown today, but we managed to walk on the Moon once, damnit. It's all a reminder there may be hope for us yet.

From the Earth to the Moon

From the earth to the moon

After Apollo 13 was a huge hit (which you should also see), Ron Howard and Tom Hanks got back together to tell the full story of how America landed on the Moon for HBO. This week, the network finally brought From the Earth to the Moon back to its streaming platforms with a spiffy new high-definition remaster. And simply put, it looks astounding.

The show is a combination of documentary footage and dramatized scenes, starting in 1961 when the Soviet Union announced that Yuru Gagarin was the first human to orbit Earth, and it ends with Apollo 17 in 1973, the last time anyone walked on the Moon. It's a strange format to see today -- every episode also starts off with a hopeful introduction by '90s-era Hanks -- but it's endlessly compelling. And short of picking up a book, it's the most expansive look at the Apollo missions you'll find on TV.

Where to watch: HBO

Apollo 11

Few films can be described as miracles, but Apollo 11 comes close. Based on unused 70mm footage shot in the run-up to the Moon landing, it gives you a pristine look at what life was like for NASA, the astronauts and everyone eager to see if they'd succeed. At times, the film footage is so clear, it looks like it was shot yesterday for a Hollywood film. There's no narrator to guide you through the film, either, instead you just glide from scene to scene, drinking in the scenery and drama of Apollo 11. While it's too late to see the film on gigantic IMAX screens -- an Earth-shattering experience, to say the least -- you'll still find plenty to enjoy at home.

Where to watch: VOD, CNN on July 20th

First Man

Daniel McFadden / Daniel McFadden/Universal Pictures

Damien Chazelle's follow-up to La La Land was ignored by most moviegoers. And the few who did catch it were in for something weird: Instead of a jingoistic celebration of American ingenuity and macho astronauts, it was an exploration of loss. The film focuses heavily on the passing of Neil Armstrong's (Ryan Gosling) young daughter, Karen, but also on the specter of death that haunted everyone being strapped onto a rocket. They weren't even safe during routine safety checks -- it brutally depicts the Apollo 1 command module fire, a freak accident that occurred during a simulated launch, killing the three astronauts aboard. And then there were the family issues: leaving your loved ones in a constant state of panic, and never being around enough to comfort them.

Still, even with death around the corner, First Man brilliantly depicts NASA's ingenuity during the '60s, armed with nothing more than math, some very basic computers, and cracker-jack piloting. We get to see Armstrong recover Gemini 8 after it starts rolling out of control. Later, during the Apollo 11 mission, we can feel the panic as he's forced to manually land the lunar rover, after noticing issues with the initial landing site. We know how the story ends, of course. But the film depicts the personal costs for Armstrong better than anything we've seen before.

Where to watch: VOD, HBO, Blu-ray

Chasing the Moon

PBS's three-part series is similar to Apollo 11, since it's also relying on newly found footage. But it's decidedly more intimate. We get to see the inside of Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman's house, for example, where his wife seems to be dreading the entire ordeal. It's guided by archived news footage, with some fresh interviews with the likes of Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. And at a lengthy six hours, it has plenty of time to dive into the context of things like what the Space Race actually means.

Where to watch: PBS

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

While astronauts were uniformly white men for decades, women were left to handle much of the computational that actually got them into space. And within that group, there were plenty women of color "computers" who never got their due in popular culture. Hidden Figures follows three notable black women -- Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who helped NASA calculate crucial flight trajectories; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer); and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), NASA's first African-American female engineer -- as they fight to make their talents recognized. Even though NASA was still more progressive than most other employers by seeking out women of color, it also forced them to live through plenty of indignities, like being forced to walk long distances to use segregated bathrooms.

Where to watch: VOD, Blu-ray

Also check out:

  • The Martian (VOD and HBO): A pro-science look at what our future of Mars exploration could look like.
  • Missions to the Moon (National Geographic): A short and sweet documentary that boils down highlights of the Apollo missions.
  • The Right Stuff (VOD, Blu-ray): The classic macho astronaut film covering the first batch of Mercury 7 astronauts.

Images: NASA; Hidden Figures: Twentieth Century Fox

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