You know the room: shaped like an auditorium, with countless screens and readout counters. A succession of tiered rows of computers and workstations, filled with chain-smoking engineers with buzz cuts, short-sleeved collared shirts, and a persistent expression of deep concentration. Often emulated and updated in global espionage blockbusters, this is the real deal: Mission Control. Or, the Christopher C. Kraft Jr. Mission Control Center, as it’s now known. The Houston NASA facility, and the men who oversaw the Apollo program, is the subject of David Fairhead’s film, an absorbing document of the Space Race of the Sixties (aka another endless instance of global dick-measuring), and the engineers who put a man on the moon (supposedly).
Fairhead is a veteran editor, starting back in 1994, when he worked on the BBC2’s brilliant and prescient news parody The Day Today. He went on to work on many documentaries, much of them science-related, so it’s no shock that his feature debut concerns the nuts and bolts of shooting astronauts into the gaping void of space and onto the nearest celestial body. Mission Control chronicles the efforts of first the Mercury and Gemini programs, before getting into the meat of the math, the Apollo missions. Utilizing every device in the documentary toolkit (talking heads, archival footage, computer animation, and the ubiquitous and austere slow pans across photographs), Fairhead expertly pieces together the history of the men (and they were all men) who tirelessly worked to usher the U.S. into a new level of space travel, often to the detriment of family relations. The only sour note in the film is the accompanying score, a bombastic and annoying succession of strings and tinkling piano that beats you over the head with its intention. That said, Mission Control is an absorbing doc that entertains and informs throughout. And this is coming from someone who barely eked out a C in calculus.
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