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Directed by (1983, Warner Bros.)
Starring Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and Pamela Reed

The best test pilots in America are trained hard in order to become the first men in space.

View Count: Twice



5 stars

June 14th, 2003 on DVD

    A terrific character study, packed with a lot of information on the birth of the space program. This is a film that does an amazing job at chronicling the beginnings of the space race.

The first thing to note about this movie is that it is a dramatization. It is by no means fact. The film, based on the book before it, takes every fact, every rumor, and every legend, and incorporates it into a great film. I seriously doubt the actual astronauts said many of the things that they do in the movie, but I doubt that what they actually said would have made such great drama.

The film is divided into three parts, with each part overlapping somewhat with the others. Chronologically, we start with Chuck Yeager, breaking the sound barrier. The life of a test pilot is not easy, filled with lots of death, and a lot of boredom in between test flights. The movie does a terrific job at showing how everybody copes with it, in the bar scenes scattered between the exciting moments. I liked the introduction of Yeager's wife, playing as a stranger until he runs off chasing her into the desert.

Yeager is content to be a test pilot, as long as he gets his adrenaline rush. However, when people start chasing after speed records, he sees the glory in attaining them all, showing his colleagues, if not the world, that he is indeed the best pilot. I don't know if his conversion was so sudden in real life; I have a feeling that he was waiting desperately for a chance to fly an X-1 through the so-called barrier. It's great to see him try and stare the plane down from atop his horse!

When the two goofballs from Washington come looking for test pilots to become astronauts, Yeager is the first to make fun of the idea. But as it gains more and more popularity, and as people begin ignoring the airplane speed records, he thinks that he might have been wrong. By the end, he wants to get into space, defending Gus Grissom, and taking the XF-104 to the edge of the atmosphere. Lacking a college degree, that was as close as he would get to being in space, and he set yet another record in an airplane.

We are introduced to Gordon Cooper and Gus Grissom early, as they are also test pilots on the same airfield as Yeager. They join people like Alan Shepard and John Glenn in rigorous testing through the second part of the movie. Where the first part showed how the test pilots had cockiness and wit to stave off their boredom and to avoid thinking about the odds of dying in flight, the second part brings that ego crashing down, as nobody is impressed with what they can do. The doctors are intent on making them fail as many tests as they can, taking away their pride and showing them that they can make grown men cry. The seven who come through it seem to be relatively unscathed. Their humor, which was required as test pilots, is even more prevalent on the testing grounds. They can still show their egos amongst each other.

The tests that the NASA doctors put them through were absolutely nuts! Since they didn't know what space would do to people, they attempted anything that they could think of. In hindsight, many of them seem so ridiculous, and it's a lot of fun to watch these men go through with barely a complaint. The funniest moment of the training, one which I remember from my first time watching this movie, has to be when the ever-sure Cooper finishes his floating ball test, beating the record, only to find Glenn and Scott Carpenter still going. After those two finish, instead of being the cocky victors that everybody expects, they congratulate each other, acting all modest and "sure" that the other would win next time!

There were certainly a few awkward moments in the film. One is the over-statement of the explosive bolts that Grissom apparently instigated for the Mercury spacecraft. Since he was the one who lost his ship because of them, this was a telegraphing move, but was pushed a little too far, I think. Another is the abrupt switch of topic in the change room, again by Grissom. There were many rumors that some women seduced all seven Mercury astronauts, a rumor that was expanded upon in the mini-series James Michner's Space back in the 1980s. Moral John Glenn was visibly upset at this, at the way the men behaved when presented with all this attention, but Grissom was somehow able to change the topic to monkeys so quickly, and the promiscuity issue never came up again.

I liked Glenn; he was definitely an all-American boy, who couldn't even bring himself to swear when he was angry. His wife, with a stutter problem, was shy, and he defended her with all of his power. It was nice to see the support his fellow astronauts gave him when he refused to let the Vice President into his house.

The four flights that we saw were presented in an interesting way. We never saw the same footage twice. Shepard got a launch, and a step out of the helicopter onto the carrier deck. Grissom got a splashdown, of course, because of the controversy surrounding the loss of his spacecraft (which has incidentally just recently been recovered, televised by the Discovery Channel). He was shown to panic inside the capsule, which I doubt was the case. John Glenn got the most screen time, showing a complete orbit, with lights in the sky, his weightlessness and the potential heat-shield problem. I don't know why the movie focused on the mystical lights, and seemed to indicate that they were from the Australian tribe's fire. That sort of mysticism doesn't belong in the movie, especially when the rest of the film was fairly spiritual-less. Finally, the movie ends with the launch of Gordon Cooper, the last of the Mercury flights. We get to see the rocket launch from a different angle, and follow its trail into the sky as the credits roll.

While the movie covers a lot of technical ground, it is the characters who keep it moving, and who keep it so interesting. Each of the characters presented was an individual, and had different character traits than any of the others. Every one of them was a joy to watch, because each of the actors brought them completely to life. I think the actors were very passionate about their roles, and the space program.

While this is not an official history of the dawning of the space age, it is a great dramatization, with awesome shots of aircraft and spacecraft. The visuals were amazing, and the music was majestic. The acting and production of the film were superb. The only problem I had with the technical side of things was the low dialog volume. Among a crowd, it was often difficult to hear what an individual was saying, such as during the press conference before any of them launched.

In those days, astronauts were heroes to just about everybody, unlike today. In those days, successes caught as much media attention as catastrophes.

The special features on the DVD are pretty standard. The trailer is really bad, and the deleted scenes don't add much to the movie, though they are very nice to have. The documentaries cover a lot of ground, but as much as they talked about making the movie, and it was nice to see how much they enjoyed it and researched it, I would have liked to see more behind-the-scenes stuff. It was really nice to see the recollections of the actual astronauts -some of them haven't even changed that much!

I expected the interactive timeline to be a little more detailed, and less one-sided, as well. It highlighted the tragedies, and didn't actually have much there. I didn't understand why some entries had text, while others had video. But I was most impressed that they actually had an entry reporting Columbia's Last Mission. That must have been a late addition to the DVD.

The best feature, however, is John Glenn, American Hero. This was a PBS documentary, really well made, which chronicles John Glenn's life, as well as some history into the Space Station. It was made in the year 2000, so it is a little out of date, but it features incredible, unique views of the Space Shuttle, launch pad, launch, landing, and Glenn's shuttle mission. Just for the view's I've never seen, incredibly clear, this documentary was amazing. In terms of quality, it is one of the best I've seen on a DVD, up with the original Episode I documentary, and the Fellowship of the Rings stuff. Truly something to watch again.


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