This compelling documentary is about the men behind the U.S. effort to put an American on the moon. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
If “Hidden Figures,” lately in the public consciousness, is the untold story of the U.S. space program, then “Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo” is the oft-told tale of how we got to the moon on July 20, 1969.
The heroes of the title are the men (the majority of them white) in the white shirts and skinny neckties peering into flickering computer screens in the big control room that we’re familiar with from Hollywood’s “Apollo 13” or, for those of a certain age, from live TV coverage of the events as they occurred during the ’60s.
Still hidden in David Fairhead’s documentary are the African-American women mathematicians who are the central characters in the 2016 hit feature. It’s a man’s world up there on the screen in “Mission Control,” with barely a female in sight.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo,’ a documentary directed by David Fairhead. 99 minutes Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Grand Illusion, through Thursday.
The men were engineers and technicians from a variety of backgrounds who were recruited by the government to get Americans into space. It was the height of the Cold War and the effort was prompted by the urgent desire to beat the Russians to the moon.
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A handful of the men of Mission Control are back on camera, gathered by Fairhead to recall the heady, harried, fateful — and in one key instance, ill-fated (the deadly Apollo 1 launchpad fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts) — effort to achieve that goal.
They’re old men now, but their memories are sharp, and the pride they feel in what they accomplished undiminished by the passage of the decades.
Combining talking-head interview segments with archival footage and animated re-creations of key events, particularly of the nearly disastrous flight of Apollo 13, Fairhead has crafted a compelling and often genuinely exciting chronicle of the race to the moon. Hearing the crew of Apollo 8 recite the biblical passage from the Book of Genesis as it orbited the moon on Christmas Eve 1968 recalls a moment when the whole world was intently following the mission.
What the movie makes clear is that that deeply spiritual moment represented a triumph of management. Under the focused direction of Christopher Kraft, the no-nonsense manager who originated the concept of a mission-control center and who has considerable screen time here, the massive infrastructure that put Americans on the moon was created with remarkable speed.
In less than a decade from the time President John Kennedy delivered his 1961 declaration to Congress committing the country to go to the moon, the United States achieved exactly that, thanks in large measure to the efforts of the men of Mission Control.