||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
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.