The Race to the Moon (2004)


Released by: The History Channel
Rating: NR
Region: 1
Anamorphic: N/A; content appears in its original 1.33:1 format

My Advice: Everyone must watch Failure; fans of space should own.

Like a lot of History Channel boxed sets, they have gobs of content to draw from. Here, the primary program Failure is Not an Option, is a TV feature-length docu (narrated by Scott Glenn) that looks at America's adventures with space and the moon from the perspective of the engineers and astronauts who made the thing happen. It leans heavily upon the folks who made up NASA's Mission Control, seeing as how the program is based on Gene Kranz' book of the same name. Kranz, for the apt among you, is best known among the pop culture prols as being The Guy That Ed Harris Played in Apollo 13. But, as this program shows, Kranz and the others did a lot more than just save three guys stuck in space.

This show is damn good. Excellent, in fact. The main reason it's significant is that it does stay down with the engineers for the most part, and let them tell their own tale. It's easy to forget there is a narrator at all, so often are we with the engineers. This is a good thing. It's part of the reason why the film is so engrossing. It's impossible to think how someone could avoid getting chills watching Kranz re-enact the speech he gave after the Apollo 1 disaster on the launchpad. Or avoid being moved by hearing both Kranz and one of his engineers give the same pre-moon landing speech, verbatim; the engineer was pulling Kranz' words from memory, just to show what an effect it all had on them.

And it's a true sign of a well-constructed historical program where the ending is well documented--there are no surprises to be had--and yet, you feel the same suspense as if you were watching a well constructed thriller. Using footage from within Mission Control along with faux archival footage that the filmmakers created (and which is pretty much seamless), you are there with the folks on the ground as they try to get the guys in space back home in one piece.

If this wasn't valuable enough, having all the folks who were there telling their various stories, Failure also has an audio commentary with Kranz, the director and the editor. It's actually informative, if a bit maddening. Not only do they talk about their struggles to remain consistent with Kranz' book and the point of view it provided, but also they talk about working within the constraints of the two-hour television block and all the stuff they had to leave out.

It would have been brilliant to then follow up with supplements that cover the holes that are discussed on the commentary, but instead you get three other programs: a special on Project: Orion and two episodes of Modern Marvels. It's not that these programs aren't any good, but when you stack them up to the content, writing and editing of Failure, there's no comparison. They look infinitely cheap by comparison. And of the three, the only one that really resonates on its own is Project: Orion, and that's just because the subject matter is so weird. It's where a bunch of folks decided that the best way to get into space was to use nuclear bombs as propulsion. No, they were serious. Freeman Dyson was in on it and everything. Anyway.

The main feature is good enough for the space enthusiast to own. Failure is one of the best docus on the space race I've ever seen. It managed to move me and keep me on the edge of my seat. Christ, I'd love to see it on an IMAX screen. Everyone else should at least rent.

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