We gave it a B
It’s entirely likely that most of what a lot of young people know about the space program derives from the 1995 Tom Hanks vehicle Apollo 13. This says less about our educational system than it does about the power of well-crafted pop culture to lend history an irresistible allure. I’m old enough to remember watching numerous NASA blastoffs and the 1969 landing on the moon with that mixture of awe and obligation that accompanies many such grand-scale public events. But neither I nor anyone I knew ever thought the race to the moon was particularly exciting — it was just there, something President John F. Kennedy had committed us to when there seemed to be more money in America to commit.
Turning producer, Hanks is now attempting some expensive, expansive revisionism. With HBO’s $68 million, 12-hour From the Earth to the Moon, he intends to transform the space program of the 1960s and ’70s into nothing less than a heroic, inspiring saga: uplift through splashdowns. The miniseries gets off to a brisk start, its first hour directed by Hanks himself, by building its drama from the social upheaval and Cold War unrest of more than 30 years ago. We’re told that the American space program came about primarily in reaction to a 1961 Russian launch of a man high into the sky: Bang — the ”space race” began, with JFK quiveringly anxious to get us competitive with the Red Menace.
It falls to the perpetually jaundiced Al Franken, the Lateline star appearing here as Jerome Weisner, to say that the nascent NASA will prove a fiscal boondoggle that will result in little more than ”a bunch of rocks” that will ”go on tour” across America. Hanks and coproducers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick set this up as a cynicism that will be proved wrong when we meet and admire, in succeeding hours, courageous — nay, cool — astronauts like Alan Shepard (Ted Levine), Wally Schirra (Chicago Hope‘s Mark Harmon), and Jim Lovell (Wings‘ Tim Daly).
Hanks, who introduces each hour, has said he’s fully aware that the early space program primarily consisted of geeks — ”a bunch of white guys with short hair” — and it must be said that of the first four hours made available for review, there are lots of scenes that involve laborious debates about trajectory and orbit and the temperature at which Velcro explodes. The episode entitled ”1968,” airing April 12, wallows in what have become film-student cliches: quick-cut footage of antiwar demonstrations at Chicago’s bloody Democratic National Convention, as well as protests in England, France, Spain, and Czechoslovakia, while rock music (in this case, the Allman Brothers’ ”Whipping Post”) blares generational admonitions.
But give the filmmakers credit: Hanks and company never suggest that the protesting shouldn’t have occurred, and ”1968” goes on to become engrossing with a finely nuanced performance by a rare non-shorthaired guy: Rita Wilson, playing Susan Borman, wife of astronaut Frank Borman. Chain-smoking and trying to avoid looking at the TV as the crew of Apollo 8 blasts off to the moon, Wilson manages to give the anguish of the little-woman-down-on-the-ground both a desired dignity and a surprising sensuality.
Such liveliness is rare in the first third of From the Earth to the Moon. Too often, we are prodded into admiration by shots of ordinary folks gazing skyward and the airy yet portentous soundtrack music. The most sustained hour thus far is part 3, ”We Have Cleared the Tower,” in which director Lili Fini Zanuck takes the same tired plot device that ruined this season’s ER opener — a documentary filmmaker (here thirtysomething‘s Peter Horton) trying to get his subjects to open up emotionally for the camera — and wrings an exciting, revelatory episode out of it, coaxing a terrifically cocky performance out of Harmon as ex-test pilot Schirra.
From the Earth to the Moon is too long, too prolix, too cable to affect an audience the way Apollo 13 did, but its virtues are real. At a time when it’s taken for granted that most movies seek to tear down myths and expose seamy undersides, there is something exhilarating about this miniseries’ bright-eyed idealism — even when that idealism occasionally leads to stiff drama. B