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

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

Here is part two of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s!

Title: Interstellar
Release Date: November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Warner Bros. Pictures
Legendary Pictures | Syncopy | Lynda Obst Productions

In the near future, the Earth has reached a crisis point and after a population crash, the surviving humans focus on raising food while facing blight and Dust Bowl-like conditions.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot forced into farming who raises his children to be intellectually curious about science, especially his daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy).  Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper to pilot a space mission along with his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway).

Their goal is to explore a wormhole that sentient beings have opened near Saturn that may lead to habitable planets that humanity could escape to.  Because of relativity, Cooper and the crew of the Endurance, which includes a couple of weird looking robots named TARS and CASE (operated by Bill Irwin, of Mr. Noodle fame), age at a slower rate that the people on Earth.  So while Cooper and Dr. Brand are making contact with previous explorers who identified promising planets, an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works on a gravity propulsion system that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.

This movie feels a lot like science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s than the flashy sci-fi movies of the 2010s. It’s also reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it tells a story mostly within the parameters of hard science, although like 2001, the denouement is fantastical.  McConaughey delivers all of his dialogue in a gravely near-whisper, which gets grating at times, but it’s a different role for him than say Dazed and Confused or How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysInterstellar felt overlong as a movie, although I could see it being fleshed out into a successful limited TV series. Overall, Interstellar is an interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining film of adventure and human drama.

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: The Farthest — Voyager in Space (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “F” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “F” documentaries I’ve reviewed are F is for Fake, 56 Up, Finding Vivian MaierFour Days in Octoberand Frank Lloyd Wright.

Title: The Farthest — Voyager in Space
Release Date: August 23, 2017
Director: Emer Reynolds
Production Company: Crossing the Line and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Production for PBS

I’ve always been fascinated by the Voyager program, and remember the excitement in my childhood each time the Voyager spacecraft would fly-by a new planet.  The Voyager program began in the 1960s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take advantage of the unique alignment of the Outer Planets that allowed for a “grand tour.”  Passing each planet provided a gravity assist that propelled the probes toward the next planet and eventually out of the solar system.

The documentary features interviews with key figures from NASA and JPL, archival photographs and film, and animated reenactments of the Voyager journeys.  Voyager is responsible for some remarkable discoveries but is famous for being a “message in a bottle” to extraterrestrial intelligence, including the Golden Record with a selection of music and greetings from the people of the Earth. In 1990, at the insistence of Carl Sagan, the Voyager I camera was turned back toward the solar system and took a series of “family portraits” including one of the Earth appearing as a pale blue dot in a ray of sunshine.

Rating: ****

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: ****

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: ****

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 27

BackStory :: Moon, Man, and Myths

The History Guys commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing with an interview with flight director Gene Kranz, among other things.

Code Switch :: Chicago’s Red Summer

Another anniversary, of a grim sort, of the race riots 100 years ago in Chicago and other American cities that targeted African American soldiers returning from the World War among others.

Fresh Air :: 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing

This podcast includes interviews with astronauts Michael Collins and Alan Shepherd as well as test pilot Chuck Yeager.

Hub History  :: The Cessna Strafer

A bizarre incident in 1989 when a man who’d just murdered his wife took to the air in a small airplane and fired an assault rifle at people on the ground in Boston.  This seems like a very serious crime, and yet I only learned about it a few years ago, even though I was alive and living in an adjacent state at the time.

99% Invisible :: Invisible Women

An interview with Caroline Criado Perez, author of Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, on how women are ignored in the design of just about everything, and the dangerous effects of this bias.

On the Media :: What, Me Worry?

Mad Magazine, the satire magazine enjoyed by decades of children going back to the 1950s, is going out of print.  Journalist Jeet Heer talks about the magazines importance and influence.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Movie Review: Hidden Figures (2016)

TitleHidden Figures
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures

This historical drama tells the story of 3 of the 20 or so African-American women who worked at NASA’s Langley Research Center in the 1960s as “computers,” mathematicians who performed vital calculations during the early days of the space race.  Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), considered “the brain” even among her peers, is assigned to the all-white, overwhelmingly male Space Task Group to use her skills in analytical geometry to calculate flight trajectories for the Mercury program.  Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), who has the talent to become an engineer, goes to court in order to fight the Jim Crow laws that prevent her from attending a University of Virginia engineering program at a local whites-only high school.  And Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is the de facto manager of the women in the human computers group without the title or the pay.  When she learns that an IBM mainframe will eventually replace her group, she sees it as an opportunity to to teach herself FORTRAN and retrains her colleagues as programmers, eventually being officially promoted to supervisor of the Programming Department.

Like many historical dramas, a number of supporting characters are fictional or composites, but in Hidden Figures that helps keep the focus on our three leads. Similarly, historical facts are fudged with a lot of details compressed or presented out of order, but again for a movie its more dramatic to have John Glenn request that Katherine Johnson verify the IBM’s calculations while he’s heading to the launch pad rather than a few days earlier.  As a humanities person, I’m also grateful that they dumbed down all the mathematics in a way I could understand, while simultaneously realizing that the best minds at NASA would not have been discussing such basic issues at Langley.

All three leads are well-acted and I appreciate that they show three very different ways that these women responded to the hurdles placed before them and achieved their goals.  Kevin Costner puts in a decent performance as the leader of the Space Task Group, who seems motivated to desegregate Langley less out of a sense of justice, and more due to it causing delays.  Kirsten Dunst plays Vaughn’s casually racist supervisor who eventually grows to respect her, kind of a stock character, but keeps it subtle enough.

A fun part of this movie is how much it parallels one of my all-time favorite movies, The Right Stuff, with some scenes and dialogue being exactly the same but from different perspectives. Hidden Figures is also a great historical film that I think I’ll enjoy revisiting, and especially important for making the story of Johnson, Jackson, Vaughn, and others at NASA so well known.

Rating: ****


Book Review: Who Was Neil Armstrong by Robert Edwards

Author:  Robert Edwards
Title:  Who Was Neil Armstrong
Publication Info:  New York, New York, USA : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012.

My son and I enjoyed another “Who Was?” biography about the first person to set foot on the moon.  Armstrong was always a private person so he was harder to feel like you knew anything about him compared with Buzz Aldrin and other more outgoing astronauts.  This book fills in the details such as his early love for flying and becoming a pilot at a young age.  There’s also the sad story of his daughter dying at the age of two, something that Armstrong never spoke about.  This is a good bio for children (and their parents) wanting to learn about the man who took “one small step” and changed the world.
Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Voyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery by Stephen J. Pyne

Author: Stephen J. Pyne
TitleVoyager: Seeking Newer Worlds in the Third Great Age of Discovery
Publication Info: Viking Adult (2010)

I’ve long been fascinated by the Voyager missions to explore the solar system.  I kind of grew up alongside Voyager, with the launches occurring just a few years after my birth and the encounters with Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune happening over the course of my life.  I was eager to read this book and learn more details of the program and its discoveries.  Pyne provides great detail about how the program started in the 1960s to take advantage of a once in a century alignment of the outer planets, funding and development, launch, and the various discoveries along the way.

Unfortunately, the author also has this theory of the Three Ages of Discovery when Western peoples voyaged out to learn what lay beyond their horizons.  The first age is in the 15th-16th century and involves mainly Spanish/Portuguese expeditions to find new sea routes, circumnavigate the Earth and colonize the “New World.”  The second age is the primarily British 18th to early 20th century efforts to seek the sources of rivers, climb the highest peaks, open up continental interiors and reach the poles.  The third age is the 20th-century exploration of space (and to some extent under the oceans).  This framework is problematic due to its Eurocentrism and skimming over the details of colonialism and exploitation of “discovered” places and people who long had lived in these lands, although Pyne does tie this idea into the military and propaganda purposes to the United States of the putative global Voyager mission.

The whole Three Ages idea might make a good introductory chapter to the book, but instead every time things about Voyager get interesting, Pyne keeps popping back to talk about Vasco de Gama or Lewis & Clark or Robert Peary.  This tends to distract rather than support the main narrative. I think a straight history of Voyager would make a more interesting book than the flabby, half-baked philosophical treatise we have here.
Favorite Passages:

Rating: **