By Dennis Hartley
The passing of Walter Cronkite, just several days shy of this upcoming Monday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, has added a bittersweet poignancy to the occasion that is hard for me to put into words. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that some of my earliest and fondest childhood memories of being plunked in front of the TV are of being transfixed by the reassuring visage of Uncle Walter, with the familiar backdrop of the Cape Canaveral launch pad behind him. Remember when the coverage of NASA spaceflights were an exciting, all-day news event, as opposed to a perfunctory sound bite sandwiched in between wall-to-wall minutiae about the latest celebrity death?
I thought I’d toss out a few ideas for a little Uncle Walter Space Launch Memorial Film Festival in your media room this weekend:
The Right Stuff– Director-writer Philip Kaufman’s masterpiece (based on Tom Wolfe’s book) is a stirring dramatization of the inspiring achievements by NASA’s original Mercury astronaut team. Considering it was made on a relative shoestring, the film has an amazingly expansive sense of historical scope. What keeps it all grounded, however are the richly drawn, down-to-earth characterizations that also makes it a very intimate story. It certainly didn’t hurt to have that dream cast-including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, Barbara Hershey, Fred Ward, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen, Scott Wilson, Veronica Cartwright, and Levon Helm.
In the Shadow of the Moon– The premise of this 2007 documentary is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.
The Dish-A wonderful little sleeper from Australia that is based on the true story of a relatively little-known but crucial component in facilitating the now-iconic live TV images of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon-a tracking station that was set up in the midst of a sheep farm in Parkes, New South Wales. Quirky characters abound in Rob Sitch’s gentle culture-clash comedy (it’s very reminiscent of Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero). It’s not all played for laughs; the re-enactment of the moon-landing telecast is unexpectedly moving and guaranteed to put a lump in your throat. Sitch and the same team of writers also collaborated on another personal favorite of mine called The Castle.
For All Mankind-A unique documentary culled from thousands of feet of mission footage shot by the Apollo astronauts themselves over a period of years. There isn’t a lot of typical documentary-style exposition; it’s simply a continuous montage of imagery with narration provided strictly by the astronauts themselves. Coupled with Brian Eno’s ambient soundtrack, it has a hypnotic effect that recalls Koyaanisqatsi at times. Criterion recently released a restored DVD version.
Apollo 13-Although it feels overly formal and somber at times, Ron Howard’s straightforward dramatization of the ill-fated mission that injected the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” into the zeitgeist still makes for an absorbing history lesson. It does excel at giving the viewer a sense of the gnawing, claustrophobic tension that the astronauts must have felt while brainstorming a way out of their harrowing predicament. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton have excellent chemistry as crew mates Lovell, Swigert and Haise, respectively. Ed Harris was born to play Ground Control’s legendary flight director, Gene Kranz (the physical resemblance is uncanny).