The newest motion picture about 1969’s mindless, mass murdering hippies aims for feminist equivocation of the women who committed the crimes. As such, its bloodstains cannot be removed. But director Mary Harron (American Psycho) shows ability in tackling a difficult subject.
In fact, Harron’s ability to depict the female monster gets in the way of the film’s feminist revisionism. At the conclusion of the movie’s first scene, the face of one of the monsters appears in the shower. It’s as ugly and blank as one would expect from a butchering murderess, which is essentially what opens Charlie Says.
Charlie Says, as the title implies, is about the hippie commune led by Charles Manson at a movie ranch in metropolitan Los Angeles. The commune is the perfect model of New Left ideals, chiefly that one can’t know reality. Harron, working from a screenplay by Guinevere Turner, dramatizes this ideal in grisly, horrifying detail.
Mixing horror with equivocation yields predictably mashed results.
The extent to which the audience is familiar with the mass murders by the hippies indoctrinated, trained and ordered by religious leader Manson may determine its impact. As it is, the murders are at once graphically depicted and substantially minimized. By showing certain flashes of the crimes’ most heinous aspects, Harron is able to concentrate audience attention on the women who repeatedly stalk, bound, torture, pulverize and stab their upper middle class and wealthy victims.
By de-emphasizing that the victims, mostly women who were targeted by New Left female hippies for being upper middle class and wealthy, and by stressing that the Manson Family females were abused by a male cult leader, Charlie Says downplays the nature of the crimes and the guilt of the criminals.
Instead, Charlie Says counters that one of the women, Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), makes a post-conviction breakthrough through collaborating with a women’s studies scholar in prison. Feminist intellectual Karlene Faith (Merritt Wever), offering to teach female Family members feminist literature and philosophy, presumably lets these self-described “earth mothers”, each of whom sought by adult consent to join Manson’s Family to “let go of [her] ego”, to liberate themselves from patriarchy.
In flashback, you see the women give their money to men, watch them undress, have orgies and whore and bully one another to gratify Manson.
This is the problem with Charlie Says, which neither properly dramatizes their supposed transformation nor properly accounts for the women’s exercise of free will. What it does do, culminating in the hippies’ mass murder of several innocent Southern Californians, most famously actress Sharon Tate, is capture the essence of America’s nosedive in 1969.
Dumpster diving in Hollywood, vegetarianism, Manson’s wannabe rock rants, complete with nihilistic lyrics and song titles, and the power players, such as the Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson and Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher, who flirted with the hippies long enough to mingle with the monster — it’s all here in chilling, numbing and disturbing detail. So is the agony of natural childbirth at the Family’s cult compound at Spahn Ranch, led by a horny old blind man named George Spahn, whose complicity is an interesting if utterly ignored subplot. Charlie Says is filmed with a style that’s virtually indistinguishable from the deadness of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.
Above all, Charlie Says painstakingly shows that the hippies’ hedonism, and its corollary, religionism, was among the laziest and most obvious conformist applications of the status quo. Pick your poison of shopworn ideals, from the Communist chic of “everything belongs to everyone” as a newborn baby is taken from the mother for the collective to references to Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary and Holy Communion (with hallucinogenic drugs). When someone tells one of the newer hippies in Manson’s compound that “you don’t have to think” it is clear that you do have to believe.
Indeed, the film’s supposed female savior falsely claims that she wants “to give [Manson’s female hippies] back themselves” and asks the prison warden and others to take her on faith. In this sense, feminist Dr. Karlene Faith (an adviser on the film), not unlike Charles Manson, demands that women be treated based on sex, not as individuals with minds of their own.
For the heavy-handedness in laying blame on Manson (perfectly portrayed by Matt Smith, nailing Manson’s rambling, singsong nasality) for being male, Charlie Says at least depicts that it was a trio of men on motorcycles who came to the woman’s rescue and it was the female who chose to evade the evidence that she was annihilating her own mind and existence.
Charlie Says shows hippie Van Houten becoming aware of her nihilism, the philosophy of nothingness which came to define and dominate American culture. And this underscores that nihilism undergirds today’s cynical culture in everything from The Simpsons and South Park to Seinfeld and Breaking Bad, Avengers, Game of Thrones and scads of movies, TV shows and recordings based on the death premise.
You do not have to look hard to find the spread of nihilism that precipitated 1969’s Manson Family, such as the 1967 movie adaptation of Truman Capote’s prize-winning In Cold Blood, but you should read Vincent Bugliosi’s exemplary legal-historical document (with Curt Gentry) Helter Skelter to know, grasp and account for the full extent of the evil of the late 1960s, when America started to go straight to hell.
When Charlie Says was first announced by Epic Level Entertainment, which has focused on horror, it was touted for expressing a relevant contemporary theme “aligned with the Me, Too movement“, according to the company’s press materials. The feminist-themed movie fails as apologia for the women’s mindlessness that led to the mass slaughter of victims such as Tate, Abigail Folger and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
But it’s to director Mary Harron’s credit that Charlie Says shows the horror of faith and the exercise of free will by vacant females in action … which no amount of feminist rationalization can eradicate or erase.
This longtime admirer and journalist of Olivia Newton-John (Grease, Sordid Lives, Xanadu, Two of a Kind, Summer Nights) read her new memoir, published this week, with intense interest.
The co-written memoir, Don’t Stop Believin’, which is both personal and light in substance and tone, contains many surprises, details and insights. The 70-year-old singer, whose career is marked by several movie performances, cultural milestones and an inspiring musical catalog and personal life, writes in the easy, natural and restrained but relaxed manner with which she performs. The woman knows her ability.
Olivia writes about every part of her life and career. Though the reader may be disappointed that she stresses people’s names at the expense of examining the songs, albums and songwriting for which she’s become a pop star, there’s also no chapter of her life untold. In this sense, Don’t Stop Believin’ is, like memoirs by Fred Astaire and Doris Day, a classic Hollywood memoir.
In short, it offers quality, light reading from a rare, telling perspective. Don’t Stop Believin’ is loaded with clinical and treatment details about Olivia’s cancer (she’s recently been diagnosed again, as I wrote about here) which alone makes the book worth reading. Olivia spares no detail yet she never lets herself, her values or her privacy go.
Among ONJ’s disclosures: she was injured in a car crash on LA’s 101 freeway, experienced debilitating pain during her three-year residency in Las Vegas, has a tattoo, failed music and math and became self-educated, was propositioned by a movie star during her first visit to America at LA’s Universal City Hilton and faced Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman during a contract dispute which she ultimately won — in court — gaining ownership of her master recordings.
Olivia traverses everything from her first marriage and divorce to miscarriage, pregnancy and parenting and neither goes deep nor shallow on any one topic. I think the Don’t Stop Believin’ reader will find himself wanting more or less of any given topic. The result, however, satisfies.
Olivia’s lifelong general advocacy for animals and the environment gets particular attention. Introspection comes in glimpses and fragments, with only an occasional indulgence from the disciplined performer. Whether recalling someone’s early career observation, which Olivia took as criticism, that she’s “ambitious” or her late sister or mother, the singer sails through the remembrances.
I adored my father and think more about him now than ever before, especially when I hear classical music, which was always playing loudly in our house. I close my eyes and see my father busily conducting each note as he smiled and drank his evening sherry.”
Some tales may surprise those who don’t know that Olivia Newton-John’s part of an extremely brave, intelligent family that, among other achievements, includes those who were awarded a Nobel prize for physics, helped to decode Nazi messages and invented the first portable iron lung.
Other tidbits include that Olivia sought emancipation from her mother after her parents’ divorce, recorded her first album while the Beatles were recording an album in the same studio and admires Andy Williams, Bob Hope and Dean Martin — with whom she made her first American appearance on television — all of whom she performed with during her youth. You’ll learn about Olivia spending the day with Dustin Hoffman (Kramer Vs. Kramer) during an audition for Tootsie and partying while vacationing with Sammy Davis Jr., Totie Fields, Carol Burnett, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gormé and Helen Reddy.
In a memorable encounter, Olivia remembers seeing Gloria Swanson at a waterfront hotel during a film festival, recalling that:
I spooned sugar into my [tea]cup at the exact moment, in the South of France, the iconic film star … swooped up those stairs. There she stood in full makeup with a bright silk scarf around her hair and wearing a long, flowing robe with bangles on her wrist. She was absolutely gorgeous, and looking right at me . . . and the tray filled with treats. “Darling,” Ms. Swanson said as she approached. “Don’t eat sugar. It’s poison.” It’s amazing that she was aware of the health risks of sugar back then, and I should have listened to her. Now, it’s forty years later and I’m finally on a no-sugar diet. I’m a slower learner!
Imagine watching Elvis Presley cover your song live in concert at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1974 while sitting next to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice — and then meeting Doris Day backstage. Or suggesting that a new fellow Australian actor named Mel Gibson co-star in your movie Xanadu with Gene Kelly, who’d give you advice for living before rehearsing a dance with you and doing all of his own skating for the movie because he said he loved skating when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. In Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia puts the reader there.
As noted, Olivia’s admirers (and I am one of them) are likely to be disappointed with a lack of depth and detail. She calls almost everyone she mentions her friend, drawing few distinctions. There’s an abundance of material on her spiritual beliefs but nothing substantial about certain seminal albums such as Have You Never Been Mellow,Physical, Soul Kiss and The Rumour. The memoir lacks an index and discography. When she does write about her music, such as the Nashville-tinged Back with a Heart, the perfect “Right Here With You” or Grace and Gratitude, it’s with a chapter title or brief reference. There are exceptions, such as her thoughts on Grease and “I Honestly Love You”. Olivia proves to be a good observer and storyteller though there is more material about her travels and various plants, animals and exotic voyages — with snakes, rhinos and Magic the Chinese kitten — than about herself and those she values.
Few are as strong — a word Olivia says she likes — as Olivia Newton-John, which I think astute readers, admirers and cultural observers will come to realize, know and appreciate. Olivia captures the wider scope of her life.
“Time is a wonderful healer,” she notes on the topic of losing her sister Rona to brain cancer, “but grief is like an ocean. I found it comes in waves and there are times when you are lost at sea. …” The woman who recorded Liv On, a trio album on grief recovery, also recalls what a friend who lost a child once told her: “grief is just proof that you loved.”
So, read Don’t Stop Believin’ to discover why Olivia declines to use the word remission — why she admires the late motivational author Louise Hay — and why she enjoys vodka in good measure. Reading this memoir helps one to know that Olivia wants everyone interested in her blend of innocence, sweetness, lightness, strength and harmony to know that she honestly loves (especially her husband) and is loved and that you should strive to find the comfort from inside, too.
And ONJ’s sense of play — including having a whipped cream fight with composer Paul Williams in a private jet — comes through. As she describes her first encounter with the late Joan Rivers when the comedienne came to help during a grueling charity walk along the Great Wall of China:
You’ve got your heels on, Joan!” I said in an amazed voice. I’ll never forget her words to me. Joan said, “Olivia, when you invited me, I thought you said the Great Mall of China!” She followed this by walking up a few stairs, turning around and asking, “Where’s the ladies’ room?” Later she told Martha Stewart on her show, “There was so much wind on the wall, I could have skipped my last two face lifts.” She also remarked, “The wall was built and rebuilt over the centuries. It’s had more work done on it than I’ve had on my face.” God love her.”
For sharing some of what is personal and for 50 years of good humor, grace and performing arts, may God bless the thriving and triumphant Olivia Newton-John.
The biting and finely crafted and acted American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes (Road to Perdition) is a fantastic film about the modern failure and folly of the American Dream.
Under narration by a character played by Kevin Spacey (Se7en, The Shipping News, The Usual Suspects) in what may be his best performance, the two-hour movie tracks several characters which revolve around three main characters in a single American middle class family.
Spacey’s frustrated husband and father hates his work, his marriage and his life. His wife (Annette Bening, Regarding Henry) is a vacuous real estate agent and their daughter (Thora Birch) is an angry and insecure teenager. Their new next-door neighbors (Chris Cooper and Allison Janney) are also married with an only child (Wes Bentley). American Beauty is exactly as tidy as I’m making it sound.
American Beauty is more involving than you might think. By tapping the currently predominant cultural trend, nihilism, which Mendes overlays with light strokes of pseudo-romanticism and pretty actors, animation and pictures, he infuses the film with a sense of possibility. This is ultimately false but it is nevertheless inviting. Mendes, in his feature film debut with the fraudulent title, makes the audience complicit in his movie about America’s impending doom.
This is his movie’s hook; that you, the audience, by watching and going along with the opening scene’s homemade video — in which an off-camera narrator asks a vapid, bored teenager: “want me to kill your dad?” — are part of America’s spiral. By engaging an audience steeped in cynicism, he skillfully fulfills his own artistic goal. If you’re infected with the contaminated rot of today’s American culture, from decades of Simpsons, vampires, thugs, gangs, Sopranos and Seinfeld to living every day as if you think the ideal is impossible and your bad mood runs your life, you’ll come away from American Beauty thinking it’s positively ingenious.
That it’s not, that it simply depicts an intellectual satire imposing a distinctly European sense of life on American life, resulting in the movie’s absurdism, which definitely mirrors real life, is accessible only to the uninfected, the clean, the few, those who are not yet the pod people. Yet even these people can see the cleverness of what he’s made. With an opening shot over a Midwestern suburb with a Chicagoland area code, and an embittered voiceover by Spacey’s dead protagonist, American Beauty unfurls its ugly depiction of America’s vanishing sense of life.
Everyone’s as miserable as Spacey’s character by dinnertime. Xylophonic cues signal that it’s safe to fixate and hate this sordid film’s juicy takedown of everything decent and American, which makes it almost seem OK that an occasional act of decency is treated as an act of heroism. Like a TV show about plane crashes, or dysfunctional family, or bitchy ex-wives, the slathered on production values and top-notch cast keep you watching the vainglory. Keep looking for meaning, the narrator and special effects seem to tease, the wreck is coming and it’s not just a trick.
And that the wreckage doesn’t end the world does have a certain sense of relief, like the feeling when you pass a car wreck that at least it wasn’t you, as Stephen King once explained. That Spacey’s unhappy husband and father lusts after his daughter’s very pretty cheerleader Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) — unleashing his fantasy and the film’s theme of roses from his frigid wife’s garden — merely sets up the climactic bundling of the movie’s multiple subplots.
Everyone plays their part to a tee here. From Scott Bakula and Sam Robards as the gay lawyer and doctor couple upending the modern Ozzie and Harriet or Cliff and Clair version of the American Dream to Kevin Spacey as perpetually horny Lester Burnham. All the names concocted by macabre screenwriter Alan Ball (who went on to create Six Feet Under) or Mendes have that cutesy quality. Take the only child Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley, Pete’s Dragon, Lovelace) or Bening’s real estate rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher, Path to Paradise) or virtually any other character’s name. As with everything in American Beauty, it’s there to look, sound or feel good in mocking Americanism.
Allison Janney (I, Tonya, TV’s Mom) plays the automaton spouse of an abusive Marine Corps colonel (Chris Cooper, Demolition, October Sky, The Company Men) who drives Ricky Fitts toward the girl next door. It’s Fitts, who quits his job in a pivotal scene that triggers the final act’s big finale, that represents the film’s core philosophy, nihilism.
“Never underestimate the power of denial,” one lead character prophetically says during the subtle shift in action. In lavishly photographed scenes of drunken, money-grubbing, pot-smoking, masturbating, weightlifting couples evading each other in kitchens, gun ranges, motel rooms, fast food joints, back alleys and bathtub fantasies, American Beauty pulls out the stops to spill its sociopathic anti-hero’s death premise across every frame, line and innuendo.
This might not mean what you think you see coming, however, which is the primary goal here as Mendes seamlessly shifts sympathies from some to others. The black-clad, Columbine High-like malcontents run amok prattling about plastic bags with vacant facial expressions while engaging in pseudo-intimacy. It’s like watching and playing with damaged dolls.
Ultimately, this is what American Beauty does best. Bentley’s Ricky Fitts character is a kind of freak of this artificial universe. On one hand, he’s gentle and almost human-like with Birch’s disturbed teenager. But finding beauty in death as he does before musing about a benevolent force doesn’t really align with his actions. The cunning, disowned, disembodied youth is a pathological liar. He films his naked girlfriend instead of being intimate with her. He lights her lawn on fire presumably in an act of courtship. He also listens to Pink Floyd, has a pager for drug deals and gets drug-free urine samples from a pediatric nurse. He only accepts payment for drugs in cash and he’s been out of an institution for a period of time. Oh, and he films naked neighbors but it’s OK since he’s a budding cinema verite filmmaker when he’s not pushing drugs.
It turns out that Ricky and Lester’s daughter Jane more or less discover that beauty only exists in death — in dead birds, funeral processions, guns, swastikas — and they do so just as fire and rain, topped off by a brand-new Pontiac Firebird, fall down in scenes that culminate with the absurdism of Garp mixed with the detachment of Ordinary People.
If American Beauty sounds exhausting, curiously, it isn’t. By now it should be clear that there’s so much symbolism in American Beauty that little things like a red door, a child’s sparkler and “Bali Ha’i” from South Pacific may go unnoticed. Add to this spunky psychological operetta choreography by Paula Abdul, a score by Thomas Newman and songs by Bobby Darin and what you get is a manufactured motion picture about what Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham calls a “stupid little life”.
It’s not that American Beauty doesn’t express itself well in its satire of Americanism and glorification of the nihilistic. The 1999 movie certainly foreshadows the 21st century, which began with a mass murderous bang which Ricky Fitts would surely find exhilarating. On its own downward terms, this death fantasy is too cute.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of a Warner Bros. hit starring Demi Moore, a leading lady at the peak of her career, and Michael Douglas (Falling Down, Fatal Attraction) based on a novel by Michael Crichton (Westworld, Jurassic Park, Congo). The adaptation, which came and went without major critical or cultural notice, is an economical morality play directed by screenwriter, director and producer Barry Levinson (The Natural, Wag the Dog, Rain Man).
Disclosure (1994) begins with a precocious girl reading computer e-mail and calling to her businessman father that he has received a message congratulating him on a promotion at work. Whatever the propriety and circumstances of a girl reading her father’s private correspondence — the film’s first disclosure — the scene suggests that this is a new industrial age of changing sex roles.
Whether and how roles change and impact culture makes for a compelling socio-topical motion picture. It’s less erotic and more intelligent than its reputation to the extent the mid-90s movie is remembered.
In today’s increasingly Puritanical era of anti-sex activism amid the Me, Too movement, sorting through these issues is daunting. As a movie, Disclosure, like each picture based on Crichton’s fiction, is unremarkable; its characters are plain and essentially devoid of passion. For example, Moore’s character, businesswoman Meredith Johnson, is blank.
The Douglas character isn’t much better. After the setup shows his upper middle class suburban Pacific Northwest lifestyle, with an attorney wife driving the family motor car while being supportive of her husband and asserting her stake in his getting promoted, it’s clear that this mid-level executive is moved by others, not by his own mind, judgment and effort. He is especially subservient to women. In this sense, the late 20th century’s post-feminist matriarchalism — a world in which the male chronically submits to the female — emerges in Disclosure.
The wife (Caroline Goodall, Cliffhanger, Schindler’s List, White Squall) pronounces the film’s morality, the central theme of anti-heroic Michael Crichton’s writings, in a warning to her husband: “Don’t climb too high and get too close to God — you’ll shake the tree”. Then, comes Crichton’s name and the movie’s title in the credits. The scene is set for shaking the tree; man, as usual in a movie based on Crichton’s work, is about to fall down.
That his ex-lover gets the promotion he thinks he deserves is Disclosure‘s main twist. It’s not much as a twist but this disruption, exacerbated by Meredith Johnson’s abuse of power with sex, shakes the business, the family and society at large. There’s a sense in which the tech company, led by the boss played by Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Hunger Games, Ordinary People), drives optics via identity politics as against merit as the new normal. A values-based fossil like the passive Douglas character, who’s arguably aspiring to be the truly modern, liberated man — he’s late for work so he can be a helpmate to his wife — is becoming extinct. The ominous music affirms this when he arrives at work.
Here, too, Disclosure gives the audience pause to think as his character also crosses a line, swatting his secretary on the rear and playing politics of his own. The ensuing sexual encounter and unsubstantiated charges of sexual harassment play out with incisive detail. Is the male, especially the white male, ever really a victim? Does Meredith sleep her way to the top? Do men? Does it matter? What becomes of the family? What becomes of sex between man and woman?
What impact does this have on cultivating a proper workplace? More fundamentally, what impact does sex as power lust have on business?
With Meredith talking about instant connectivity through personal computing and virtual reality or artificial intelligence as the primary business value at stake, tech suspense spins. Sutherland’s villainous boss ponders that the coming Information Age will make truth more elusive. His accomplice, Moore’s Meredith Johnson, forecasts that technology will diminish personality distinctions in pursuit of sameness. Disclosure doesn’t put it this way but it’s eerily predictive of tech’s media, gaming and social media’s worst uses and what’s happened in the 25 years since this movie was released. In director Levinson’s capable hands, Crichton’s tech dimension adds to Disclosure‘s tension.
Disclosure ends with a potentially more benign vision of the future than Crichton’s philosophy allows. A budding scientist emerges as a check against the power lusters, though this, too, is contingent upon the subordination of male to female. The most heroic character in Disclosure is the individual who fights to uphold the sanctity of her marriage and Caroline Goodall gives the most impressive performance. Twenty-five years after this movie debuted in theaters and became known for its supposedly erotic scenes, Disclosure, perhaps unwittingly, forewarns that ‘time’s up’ for Western civilization.
“Is this how I’m going to go out?” American Negro singer Nat “King” Cole asks himself before performing for the final episode of his TV variety show after a makeup artist tries to apply cosmetics to lighten his skin.
This question and how Cole answers it forms the basis for the wild fantasy that’s Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse, which recently debuted in the Gil Cates Theater and runs until March 24. As Cole, Dulé Hill (NBC’s The West Wing, USA Network’s Psych) can sing and dance, which Psych fans already know, though he doesn’t come close to matching Cole’s smooth, crooning voice.
This harsh show business fantasy has eye-popping visuals, gimmicks and plot turns that keep the audience paying attention. It’s more modern social commentary than nostalgic performance evoking an American icon.
Indeed, playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor cast Cole as repressing or suppressing his inner rage as he prepares for the last broadcast of his variety show (Cole was TV’s first black host). Integrally, the 90-minute show revolves around tormented Cole as he ponders advice from pal Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.”
With raw, inventive staging and lighting that mocks or challenges the audience, depending upon one’s perspective, the entertainer who broke the color barrier on television experiences his moral dilemma through song. Most of the Nat “King” Cole classics are performed, often with cutting tie-ins to racism and other cultural points, as an elfin Davis pops in and out of the show.
The climax comes with a tap dance-off between Hill’s Cole and Watts’ Davis, with choreography by Jared Grimes that requires more stomping and pounding than tap dance of the day. This, too, is part of the playwrights’ contention that beneath the lightness of song and dance men like the marvelously talented Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., there must’ve been real pain and suffering. Lights Out provokes the audience to think about that and, though the show doesn’t match its mania with substantial dramatic scenes, there’s a sense in which its catharsis earns Cole’s happier song.
Have you ever wondered what it was like to put a man on the moon?
Billed as Apollo 11: The IMAX Experience, this exciting new documentary by Todd Douglas Miller, which features never-before-seen 70mm footage, opens for a one week engagement in IMAX theaters on March 1st. Apollo 11 answers the question in pictures, with some titles and journalistic narration. It’s a purely manmade cinematic adventure in 90 minutes.
With the low rumble of the gigantic vehicle that moved the rocket ship into place, followed by a cautionary yellow light, the movie begins with wordless, scoreless archival motion pictures. listen to the sound of a helicopter. See the launchpad bathed in light the night before the rocket launch. Hear CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite’s voice telling his audience that the ship is perched on pad 39A.
As long as you don’t expect straight, narrative reporting, let alone storytelling, this stark movie’s a rare chance to experience the historic mission to put a man on the moon in a movie theater. Except for television programming, including Apollo 11 programs for PBS and HBO, this “one giant leap for mankind” has never been depicted as a cohesive movie. Last year’s movie about the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, originated with stories about Armstrong. 1978’s fictional Capricorn One starring O.J. Simpson, James Brolin and Sam Waterston implied that it might have never happened. In the 50 years since Americans put a man on the moon, the most popular space movie based on fact, Apollo 13, focused on what Americans did when something went wrong with a moon mission.
Apollo 11 isn’t going to be the definitive movie about this great moment in history. It is too limited and journalistic for that. With black and white pictures of the astronauts and their families at various stages of their lives and careers, it also moves too fast without any titles or exposition.
But the tale of the grand and sacred achievement by Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin (inexplicably known as Buzz) and Michael Collins and NASA comes through and, in Miller’s careful reconstruction, it is magnificent. There are several flaws, such as modern music with its distortions and folksiness, a lack of subtitles and titles and lack of clarity in explaining basic rocket science for a general audience, which detract from the filmmaker’s apparent goal to let the mission impress for itself. As a whole piece, however, Apollo 11 can’t help but induce wonder despite the minimalism.
With rows and rows of computerized banks of men smoking cigarettes, amid machines and paraphernalia emblazoned with the distinctive logo of Apollo 11, the movie matches the 1969 mission’s march toward what Ayn Rand rightly described as a sight of the sublime. Indeed, when Miller chooses to impose the image of a vehicle marked “Family wagon”, it reminded me of Ayn Rand’s brilliant writings about her thoughts on the rocket launch, which she witnessed as a guest at Cape Canaveral, including her contrast of this historic event with the year’s philosophically opposing event, the disastrous concert in the mud at Woodstock in upstate New York.
Aside from the pictures of Neil Armstrong on the moon, which linger in sequence from multiple actions and angles aligned with the astronauts’ recorded voices, and the footage of hundreds of men and women, black and white, working to achieve this remarkable goal, the pictures of middle class Americans converging along central Florida’s coastline are among the most striking. Father and child sleeping in the back of a station wagon, footage of a pool of reporters on pay phones and typewriters (did I spot ABC News space journalist Jules Bergman?) and a young woman excitedly looking up to the skies with her pair of binoculars add to the tension, enthusiasm and historical thrill of Apollo 11.
What amounts to the film’s second part begins with the countdown, which included a hydrogen leak as technicians furiously worked to tighten bolts to fix a valve before the three astronauts were launched into the sky. All of this is on display, occasionally with small titles, with American company logos and names such as Bell + Howell, Canon, Boeing and Rockwell International. Look for American VIPs who chose to attend the launch, too, such as actor Hugh O’Brian and Johnny Carson.
As Apollo 11 soars into outer space, the film shifts to Houston. If you’re young, it may take an adjustment to watch the movie without infographics. This is not like a Google’s YouTube amateur production, a meme or a slick video with accompanying words if the sound’s turned off. These are rare historical pictures and footage culled from NASA which reflect the seriousness with which Americans once took, celebrated and revered the manmade. I couldn’t help but notice the meticulous archiving, chronicling, sketching, photographing and recording with which Americans made these films, drawings and pictures. Miller employs simplicity in excellent animation sequences outlining man’s voyage to the moon.
America appears in snapshot with references to Chappaquiddick, the Vietnam War and President Nixon, a mixed-to-bad president who added to the occasion with eloquence. Neil Armstrong comments on “cohesive material” and compares the surface of the moon to the American high desert. Following displays of uniquely American humor, cigar and cigarette smoking and flag waving in mission control and a biblical reference, the aircraft carrier Hornet appears, the musical score distracts and Apollo 11 enters its third, final and re-entry phase. This, too, sneaks up and thrills the audience whether you know this historic event or not.
A jarring appearance by the overly credited President Kennedy lurches the audience back to earth, though, again, Miller shows the Americans in Florida, adding footage of welcome home banners and parades in Chicago and New York City, of all places, as if unearthing cinematic proof that, once upon a time 50 years ago, Americans even in New York cheered for the manmade. Some even worshipped the best in man.
The few who remain should not hesitate to see this short film in theaters.