Before watching the movie:
I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised a movie known for one sequence (slow-motion astronauts) is over three hours long. After all, Lawrence of Arabia is mainly known for the desert montage. I am surprised to learn the scope of the movie. I always understood it to chronicle the Mercury program, and possibly Gemini leading to Apollo. But I’m now seeing it described as starting with breaking the sound barrier. On reflection, supersonic speed would have come from the same test programs that produced the Space Race astronauts, but I never connect aeronautics and astronautics.
I should address that I somehow got the idea the film was made in the 60s, which is ridiculous, since it chronicles the 60s. But on the rare occasions I thought about that, I considered it kind of a propaganda film doing a victory lap after a successful moon landing. Which would still probably make it early 70s, but that’s quibbling.
After watching the movie:
In the days after the war, the US military continues to push the limits of their technology, trying to build an aircraft capable of breaking the “unbreakable” sound barrier, and then continuing to set speed records, the test pilots at Edwards continually trying to one-up each other while their wives can’t ignore the high mortality rates. Pretty soon, the Soviet Union starts a space program and America has to answer in kind, with spacecraft carrying human passengers. Test pilots are the best choice for the job, but the public spotlight and high risk may not be worth the glory.
This is based on a nonfiction book chronicling the beginning of the US space program, and it feels like there wasn’t a single page cut. I think I would enjoy reading the book, but the book would be divided in chapters and easy to put down and pick up again later while the film expects to be seen in one three hour plus sitting. The scope of the events recounted adds up to a pile of subplots with no one arc feeling like it was carried the whole way through, which is not strictly necessary for a film, but helps keep interest. I was actually quite invested in the aeronautical test piloting, but by the time the two hour mark was approaching and Alan Shepard was sitting on the launchpad for most of the day, I was almost as bored.
The film is perhaps unkind to the engineers, but I don’t see them as bumbling as some do, just too focused on their jobs to remember the men inside their capsules past life support, which grows out of the real objections raised to getting the nation’s best pilots to seal into a ballistic payload. Perhaps the scientists take too much share of the comic relief without enough respect for their skill, but I enjoyed it.
The film brings up a popular old variety show character I never heard of called José Jiménez, a cringeworthily awful stereotyped character that had several jobs but most famously as an astronaut, and at first I thought it was just reflecting the time and not much more, but I was impressed that it went on to expand into a subplot about Alan Shepard learning to be less racist. It didn’t feel like it came to much though, since even after he stops imitating José, he’s gotten known for it and others imitate José to him.
I’m quite fond of historical detail in docudrama or whatever this is. But this movie ended up feeling like all detail. Maybe there should be more movies like that to get more variety into audience expectations, but this is a book on screen in a way many adaptations never are, and the marriage turned me off.