Ground Control to Major Tom – Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (Film Review)

Rating:

Given the funding issues with Space Programs throughout the world, I honestly believe this eras’ children will be the first generation, since the Sixites, to grow up without the dream of becoming astronauts. To be a pioneer of that greatest undiscovered realm, the cosmos, was one that rang a deep resonance with many children trapped in our bland mundane world. Except for me, I always wanted to grow up to be Rutger Hauer in The Hitcher (1987). Had a bit of an odd childhood.

However, no matter how many of you dreamed of going into space, we would still need the support of the guys back home to get us there and back. A pilot is only as good as their air traffic control, as Die Hard 2 taught us. Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017) tells the story of the men of Houston Ground Control.

Comprising interviews with people from the control desks and archive footage, Mission Control tells the story of the Apollo Ground Control team through its key moments; from the diverse backgrounds its members came from to its famous moments such as the tragedy of Apollo 1, the program’s success of Apollo 8, the seminal moment of our species history that was Apollo 11, and the successful failure of Apollo 13. We learn of the trials, failures, and successes from the people there including Flight Director Gene Kranz (of Ed Harris in Apollo 13 fame). Throughout the film we are reminded of the esprit de corps these men, with an average age of 30, had in their mission, and their mantra of “Tough and Confident”. Tough on preparing for a mission and Confident in its outcome, that enabled them to surmount the challenges of getting humanities first space-crafts to the moon and back.

This is a good documentary, solid and informative, it does what it says it’s going to do and tell you about the background players in each Apollo mission.

But it’s not a great documentary.

I love history. I also love space. I was looking forward to a great film and Mission Control does deliver, up to a point. Getting their stories, their experiences, when we put humans into space brings home the awe inspiring work these people did, and if we ever plan to get off this dying rock hurtling through space we will need people of the same calibre.
The problem with Mission Control is that it doesn’t feel like a feature documentary. It feels more like a television one, a PBS American Experience film. Not that that’s bad, PBS make some great shows but for a feature documentary I was expecting much more. After a while it turns into a steady stream of interviews, broken up now and then with some archive footage, which holds Mission Control back.

The reaction of the Ground Control to the deaths of the Apollo 1 men is excruciating and on an emotional level with the joy at the successes of Apollo 8, 11, and 13 but the film doesn’t go deeper than a quick surface glance. It should have been longer or focused on at least one mission and drawn out the story. Each member has a different take on their commitment to the mission; one saying if he had the chance to do it again he’d walk away due to the strain it put on his home life, and how their mantra of “Tough and Confident”, created by Kranz, saw them through both emotionally and physically.  But like a claustrophobic miner it doesn’t go deep enough.

Mission Control reminds us that we were promised that one day we would slipped the surly bonds of earth and walk among the heavens. Yet somehow we remain stuck on polluted stone, falling through space and having to share it with the Kardashians.

A solid documentary that could have gone deeper.

Dir: David Fairhead
Country: USA/UK
Year: 2017
Runtime: 101