Documentary Movie Review: Apollo: Missions to the Moon (2019) #BloggingAtoZChallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter A that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: Apollo: Missions to the Moon
Release Date: July 7, 2019
Director: Tom Jennings
Production Company: 1895 Films

This National Geographic film celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing with an overview of the Apollo Program missions.  There is no voice over or talking head interviews in the movie, instead it is more of a collage of found footage from various sources.  The movie unfortunately gives short shrift to a lot of the Apollo missions, focusing mainly on four: the fatal disaster of Apollo 1, the first lunar orbit (Apollo 8), the first moon landing (Apollo 11), and the rescue of the Apollo 13.  I like the variety of footage of people on Earth watching and reacting to the missions.  I especially like the BBC footage of James Burke (later to become famous for the fantastic series Connection series) explaining what is going on.  The movie also doesn’t shy away from controversy with several contemporary interviews with people questioning the value of the space program with so many problems to solve on Earth.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Apollo 13 (1995)

Title: Apollo 13
Release Date: June 30, 1995
Director: Ron Howard
Production Company: Imagine Entertainment

This is a movie I have difficult time being objective about since I’m endlessly fascinated by the space program, and because this movie is kind of a spiritual sequel to The Right Stuff, one of my favorite movies of all time.  The movie tells the story about the third Apollo mission to attempt a moon landing in April 1970, which turns into a mad scramble to save the astronauts’ lives after a liquid oxygen tank explodes and causes other tanks to leak.

Tom Hanks stars as Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell (I read Lovell’s book Lost Moon many years ago and it’s an excellent memoir that I recommend) with Kevin Bacon as Command Module Pilot Jack Swigert and Bill Paxton as Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise.  They all do a terrific job of dramatizing the cool under pressure astronauts in a helpless situation.  The real heroes of this film turn out to be Mission Control crew under the leadership of Flight Director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff). A lot of the characters are composites reflecting the facelessness of the hundreds of people who made the Apollo program possible. Among them is Ken Mattingly played by Gary Sinise*, an astronaut who was supposed to go on Apollo 13 but was grounded because of exposure to measles.  Nevertheless, Mattingly spends a lot of time in simulators to work out a plan to return the Apollo 13 astronauts safely.

Ron Howard directs the film competently, perhaps not with cinematic flair, but he gets all the points of the story in an entertaining and fluid.  I didn’t know until recently that they actually filmed the scenes of astronauts in weightlessness in a special airplane used for training real astronauts.  I know they could’ve done this with harnesses but it’s pretty cool that the actors were really weightless for some parts of the film. It adds to the authenticity of the piece. Of course, if you REALLY want to watch a great movie about the Apollo program, the documentary Apollo 11 is a must-see!

* There was a period in the mid-90s when Sinise was in a lot of big movies, and I always liked him, but then he seemed to vanish. Whatever happened to him?

Rating: ****1/2

Documentary Movie Review: Earthrise (2018) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “E” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “E” documentaries I’ve reviewed include The Endless Summer and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Title: Earthrise
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Director: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Production Company: American Documentaries Inc.

This short documentary focuses on the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. The goal of this mission was to successfully orbit the moon and return to Earth in preparation for the moon landings that would begin the following year.  With NASA’s plan and rigid schedule for getting the spacecraft into lunar orbit and documenting the moon up close, there was no intention of looking back at Earth.

And yet as the astronauts – Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell – became the first people to ever leave low Earth orbit, they began to notice the beauty of the Earth visible in full.  While circling the moon and documenting the surface with photographs, Anders noticed the Earth rising over the moon.  The photograph he took became the most famous part of the mission.

The movie features archival footage of the mission and contemporary news events with the only narration coming from present-day interviews with Anders, Borman, and Lovell. They talk about the significance to them of seeing the Earth from afar.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Apollo 11 (2019) #atozchallenge

Note: I wasn’t planning on doing documentaries again for this year’s A to Z Challenge, but since I suddenly found myself with more free time at home, I decided why not.  Unlike my main A to Z posts, which were scheduled ahead of time, I’ll be doing these as I go along with the chance I might miss some along away.  Nevertheless, enjoy your bonus A to Z content.

This is my entry for “A” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “A” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Ai Weiwei: Never SorryAfrica: The SerengetiAmerican Experience: Blackout,  American Experience: Into the Amazon,, American Experience: Walt Disney and Amy.

TitleApollo 11
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Production Company: CNN Films | Statement Pictures

In this big-budget, science-fiction adventure, three men leave their planet and travel to another world for the first time, with thousands of people supporting them back home.  And it’s all real.

This movie is built entirely with original footage from the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission to Mars, including previously unreleased 70 mm footage that is awe-inspiring.  There is no narration or retrospective interviews, just descriptions from the contemporary dialogue of the astronauts, NASA employees, and news media.  Simple animations appear on the screen before all of the Apollo 11 mission’s major maneuvers, and countdown clocks build up the tension.  All of this is scored to an incredible soundtrack of electronic music using only instruments that were available in 1969.

As a space exploration buff, I may be biased, but this is one of the most exciting, beautiful, and well-edited documentaries I’ve ever seen. I hope at some point I can see it again on a big screen and be fully-immersed in this spectacular film.

Rating: *****

Book Review: One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Author:Charles Fishman
Title: One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2019)

50 years after the United States first landed people on the moon and returned them safely to Earth, the story of the Apollo program in the popular imagination is compressed.  The general story is that three courageous men flew into space and two walked on the moon and planted a flag. There have been moments in popular culture that offered glimpses into the bigger story – the movie Apollo 13 which showed the nerds at Mission Control as the real heroes rather than the jocks in space, and more recently the book and movie Hidden Figures that brought greater awareness to Black women performing calculations by hand for the early space program.

The goal of One Giant Leap is to broaden the understanding of the Apollo Program, getting a better sense of the tens of thousands of people who worked millions of hours over 11 years to get those two men to the moon (and then repeat if five more times). NASA had people working on the project in all 50 states, a sign of both the scale of the project and the need to divide up government spending to gain wide support.  Fishman also asks the question of whether flying men to the moon was worth the cost and effort, and provides some interesting answers.

Going to the moon was never popular, as it polled poorly throughout the 1960s.  People, now and then, asked whether that money and effort would be better spent solving a problem on Earth. Fishman wisely notes that budgets generally don’t work in a way where funding for Apollo could’ve been easily redirected to, say, ending poverty, but also that a discrete project with an defined end goal is actually easier to pull off than more dynamic problems such as ending poverty, racism, and war, and they need not be mutually exclusive.  Fishman also notes that despite the high cost of the Apollo Program, it did achieve its goal within the stated time, unlike other government programs that do not receive similar criticism. The Vietnam War, which occurred roughly contemporaneously with the Apollo Program, cost six times as much, lead to hundreds of thousands dead, and destroyed much of the country it was supposed to save.

One person surprisingly not that much interested in exploring space was John F. Kennedy.  His famous “we go to the Moon” speech (analysed in depth in this book) came in the context of the embarrassment felt at the USSR beating the US to every key space exploration milestone and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Within in two years, Kennedy was looking to cut NASA funding and set a more leisurely timeline toward landing on the Moon as long as it looked like the Soviets weren’t going to get there first (and perhaps a bit selfishly, since NASA original promise of landing on the Moon by 1967 was pushed back, JFK saw no need to push a big program that wouldn’t even come to fruition until after his potential second term was over).  Kennedy’s assassination ironically saved the Apollo Program as it made a true believer in the space program, Lyndon Johnson, the President, and Kennedy’s “we go to the Moon” speech became an impetus to complete the mission in his honor.

Looking back on Apollo, people wonder what it’s legacy is since no humans have ever returned to the Moon and it did not usher in a Space Age.  Fishman offers that the true legacy of Apollo is not the Space Age, but the Digital Age.  In order to navigate the lunar module to the Moon and then rendezvous with the command module, the Apollo Program needed innovations in interactive computing and integrated circuitry. These advances sped up the development of computers that have revolutionized all aspects of society over the past 50 years.  Apollo also stood as a model of innovative project management. Even the more mundane nature of later space programs like the Space Shuttle and the International Space Program is a sign of the success of Apollo as it has made space exploration routine.

If there’s one critique of the book is that the narrative doesn’t flow as the author jumps around from topic to topic and could’ve spent more time diving into particular issues.  Nevertheless, the topics and anecdotes he shares are interesting, and include:

  • the key role of Bill Tindall, an aerospace engineer with the ability focus in on minute details, and who’s memos – called Tindallgrams – became must-read material within NASA
  • NASA almost forgot to pack a flag on Apollo 11, and a great analysis of the cultural importance of the flag planting ceremony on the Moon
  • how the lunar rover aided greater exploration of the Moon on later missions

Recommended books:

  • A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
  • Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon by Alan Shepard
  • Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell

Rating: ****