Apollo 11 (2019)

I’ve never had much personal interest in the Space Race as a cinematic subject. Outer space itself? Sure, that’s where alien beasts and blackhole portals to Hell are found, so I’m always down the visit that arena on the big screen. It’s more the real-life Cold War story of Patriotic Americans beating Communists to the Moon to plant our own flag there first that generally bores me. Maybe it’s a question of over-familiarity. Titles like The Right Stuff, First Man, Apollo 13, and Hidden Figures are only the tip of the Space Race media iceberg, usually inspiring me to file away the genre completely in the same Dad Stuff category as Westerns, war movies, and James Bond films, none of which I have much enthusiasm for. I was still somehow lured in by the recent documentary Apollo 11, even though it’s a back-to-basics approach to telling this exact same story yet again. Assembling & restoring previously unseen 70mm footage from the NASA archives that documented the first successful mission to the Moon fifty years ago (apparently NASA has their own myth-making production company like WWE Studios & NFL Films?), Apollo 11’s only gimmick in refreshing the Space Race narrative is that it has no gimmick at all. It’s elegantly straightforward in its presentation of documentary footage from the historic event, assuming the audience is already familiar enough with the context of its importance to not need narration or talking-head interviews to walk us through it. That elegance does help cut down on the potential tedium of telling the same Space Race story yet again (as well as lessening the usual American jingoism that accompanies it), but that’s not what lured me to the theater for this particular Space Race rehash. What really had me on the hook was its promise of an irresistible combination you usually only see in science fiction: outer space imagery + analog synths.

The imagery on display is, itself, incredible. The restoration makes it feel as crisp & as vivid as it would if it were filmed just yesterday instead of a half a century ago and, since NASA was smart enough to document itself, the level of intimacy in access is literally unsurpassable. Of course, that’s a huge boon once the cameras are launched into space, but I was surprised to discover myself equally fascinated by the footage they captured on Earth. Apollo 11 is just as much an act of people-watching & a late-60s fashion look book as it is an outer space travelogue – from the Norman Rockwell families who camped out to watch the titular mission launch to the thousands of NASA workers who helped make that mission possible. The outer space footage is more of a one-of-a-kind affair, though, especially as it was paired with the sweet analog tones of the Moog synthesizer. Composer Matt Morton prides himself on crafting the score entirely with analog equipment that predates the 1969 mission. His ominous Moog tones combine beautifully with the 70mm outer space footage, especially in a proper theatrical setting. And since the movie has an overt fetish for gear of all sorts – analog musical instruments, NASA switchboards, spacecraft components, the cameras themselves – the logistics of capturing the footage you’re watching becomes just as much a part of the story as the logistics of flying to the Moon in the first place, to the point where there’s strong case to nominate Buzz Aldrin for Best Cinematography at next year’s Oscars. Apollo 11 may not have alien space-beasts, portals to alternate Hell dimensions, or episodes of murderous space-madness, but it has everything else you could want from space travel sci-fi: elaborate production design, memorable costuming, eye-searing visuals, technical mumbo jumbo, and an ominous synth soundtrack, all in a real-life document.

My favorite sequence in Apollo 11 is what I like to think of as the sex scene. After spending a night separated, one piece resting on the moon while the other orbits above, the two components of the Apollo 11 spacecraft reunite in a complex re-docking maneuver. The sequence is filmed from both units’ POV, as if the space ships are longingly staring into each other’s eyes as they gradually lock their open mouths together for an airtight kiss. Meanwhile, tender keyboard flourishes score the ritual, recalling cinematic romances like the Counting Crows escalator scene in Cruel Intentions (which recently enjoyed its own theatrical anniversary, just as significant as the moon landing’s). You don’t get that kind of patience or intimacy or ethereal beauty in most Space Race docs, mostly because they let redundant talking-head interviews get in the way of the good stuff. Apollo 11 is comprised entirely of the good stuff. It’s incredible that a film had to go all the way back to the story’s bare-bones origins to find a way to make it compelling again.

-Brandon Ledet

Hidden Figures (2016)

fourhalfstar

Although it’s a fairly paint-by-numbers historical pic, Hidden Figures stands out as a moving and impressive film, and the Academy has taken notice: Figures has picked up multiple Oscar nods this year in both behind-the-scenes and before-the-camera categories. This is important for a number of reasons, not least of all that it demonstrates that the #OscarsSoWhite backlash has put the old guard on notice. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the current political climate is anti-science, anti-progress, anti-women, and anti-minority, and while this film doesn’t exactly stand in that gap and hold the door, it does serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go.

The film follows the story of three real black women who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s as “computers,” numerical analysts who performed and checked the calculations needed to put satellites into orbit, and later to send the first men into the cold vacuum that lies between the stars and bring them down to earth again. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a mathematician who becomes an engineer, alongside Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn, who leads the “colored women” computing group as a de facto supervisor despite being denied the prestige, title, and remuneration of that position. The cast is largely led by Empire‘s Taraji P. Henson, who plays Katherine Goble (later Johnson), a mathematical and physics genius who is instrumental in the calculations that are used to launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit and save him from destruction on re-entry. Rounding out the cast are Kirsten Dunst as Dorothy’s foil, an obstructionist gatekeeper, Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, the head engineer of the Space Task Group, Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, the director to whom both Stafford and Katherine Goble report, Mahershala Ali as Katherine’s love interest Jim Johnson, and Aldis Hodge (so good to see you, Aldis, I’ve missed you so much since Leverage went off the air) as Mary’s husband Levi.

As with all historical films, it’s not wholly clear how precise Hidden Figures is in its details (I must admit that I haven’t read the book on which the film is based), but that’s largely irrelevant to the film’s message. Does it matter whether or not the real-life Al Harrison took a crowbar to the “Colored Ladies Room” sign and declared that “Here at NASA, we all pee the same color,” after learning that his best mathematician had to run a mile to the only such lavatory on the program’s campus every time she needed to relieve herself? Not really. What matters is showing young people (especially young girls) of color that although barriers exist, they can be surmounted. It also reminds the white audience that is, unfortunately, less likely to seek this film out that the barriers that lie in place for minorities to succeed do exist despite their perception of a lack of said barriers. What Harrison initially perceives as a failure in his subordinate’s work ethic is, in reality, a fact of her existence to which he is blind because of his privilege; in fact, his position of power has rendered him so above and outside of this concern that the fact it exists is a shock to him. It’s not exactly subtle, but when the truth has to still be dropped like an anvil from the sky fifty years after the fact, there’s no room for subtlety.

Characters like Stafford and Vivian Mitchell could easily be construed as caricatures, but Hidden Figures reminds us that this same kind of oppression is still ongoing. Post-bathroom-desegregation, Vivian and Dorothy both emerge from bathroom stalls and Vivian (who at this point has blocked Dorothy from a promotion to supervisor and taken no small satisfaction in the way that the goalposts have been moved for Mary’s transition to engineer) tells Dorothy that she has “nothing against [her] kind,” she just does her job. Dorothy gives her the only answer that she can: “I know . . . that you probably believe that.” It’s a stark reminder that “following orders” to maintain an immoral status quo isn’t just used as self-justification for the enablers and perpetrators of genocide in a distant past, it’s something that happens every day, hindering progress at every half-step.

There’s a lot to parse in this film, straightforward though it may seem, certainly far more than can be contained in this review (and, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, this discourse is limited by the horizons of my privilege as a white cisman), but Hidden Figures gets a strong recommendation from me. Catch it in theaters if you can; and, if you can’t, make sure to rent it somehow to show to your ignorant friends and family next holiday. Just be prepared to admit that maybe it is hard to buy Glen “Chad Radwell” Powell as American hero John Glenn.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond