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From the DVD Shelf: From the Earth to the Moon

In 1998, HBO aired From the Earth to the Moon, a twelve-part mini-series produced by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Michael Bostick.  The series chronicled the Apollo program, the massive American space-flight initiative that ran from 1961-1975 and which resulted in the first human being landing on the moon.

I am a nut for all things related to space-travel, so I eagerly devoured From the Earth to the Moon when it originally aired.  I have re-watched the series all the way through several times in the intervening years, and most recently re-watched it with my wife last month (who had never seen it before).  Although the series has nowhere near the intensity of Tom Hanks’ later HBO historical mini-series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it still holds up as a phenomenal work of television, electrifying and informative.

What’s fun about the mini-series is that each episode has it’s own style and rhythms.  Obviously there is continuity from one episode to the next, as the stories have to fit together chronologically to tell the story of the developing Apollo program.  But each episode was written and directed by different individuals, and the creative team clearly took great pains to give each hour its own specific feel.  The first episode, for instance, titled “Can We Do This?” (which has to cover a lot of ground in setting up the story and summarizing the entire Mercury program — which was the focus of the superlative film The Right Stuff) is separated into a series of individually titled chapters — basically little vignettes that together paint a larger picture.  The third episode, “We Have Cleared the Tower,” is presented as the work of a documentary crew which was filming the preparations for the Apollo 7 mission.  Episode 5, “Spider,” (one of my favorite episodes of the mini-series) shifts the focus to the incredible amount of work done by all of the designers and engineers who constructed the lunar module.  Episode 10, “Galileo was Right,” focuses on all of the archaeological work that the astronauts had to accomplish (and the extraordinary amount of prep work that they needed to put in in order to do so).  These are just a few examples.  It’s a very clever strategy, as it keeps each episode fresh and new for the viewer.

There are a lot of visual effects throughout the series, and for the most part the quality is high.  There are several sequences of space-flight and Earth orbit that are very beautiful.  But this area is where the seams of this 1998 production show a bit.  I’m sure that today’s technology would have allowed for the creation of far more elaborate special effects.  But with the exception of one or two really wonky shots, the visuals in the episodes work quite nicely, and mesh well with all of the actual historical footage used and the footage of the actors.

Speaking of the actors, the mini-series boasts a phenomenal assemblage of actors who make up the show’s sprawling ensemble of characters.  Famous names and a lot of character actors you’ve probably never heard of (but whose faces you would probably recognize) combine to create a wonderful rich, deep world of characters for this very large story.  I couldn’t possibly name every great actor who participated in this project, but let me just highlight a few.  Nick Searcy provides some of the important glue to link together all the episodes of the series, as he appears in almost every installment as NASA Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton.  Also appearing throughout the series is Lane Smith (you might remember him, as I do, from his portrayal of Pa Kent on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman) as the fictional newscaster Emmett Seaborn (Sam’s dad?) and Stephen Root (Office Space, Newsradio) as Chris Kraft, NASA’s first director of flight operations.  David Andrews brings a lot of seriousness and gravitas to his role of Apollo 8 commander Frank Borman, and he’s great in the episode in which NASA and the US government need to decide how whether to continue with the Apollo program following the tragic deaths of the Apollo 1 crew.  Brett Cullen (Goodwin on Lost) plays Apollo 15 commander Dave Scott, who gets a nice spotlight in the archaeology episode “Galileo was Right,” as does David Clennon as the crew’s charismatic teacher Lee Silver.  Tim Daly (Wings) has the tough role of following Tom Hanks in the role of Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell.  He’s a lot of fun in the role, definitely giving it a different spin than Mr. Hanks did.  I just wish he had more to do in the series.  It’s fun to see the great Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) in the small role of Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who orbited the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed.  Mark Rolston (the vicious Bogs from The Shawshank Redemption) brings a layer of quiet sadness to the role of Gus Grissom, the second American to fly in space, who then perished in the Apollo 11 fire.  It’s a hoot to see Dan Butler (Bulldog from Frasier) as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz (the role Ed Harris so memorably portrayed in Apollo 13), just as it’s fun to see Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the Middle, Breaking Bad) as Buzz Aldrin.  James Rebhorn (Independence Day) makes quite an impression as Harrison “Stormy” Storms, an engineer for North American Aviation, as does the great Kevin Pollack as NASA head of the Apollo spacecraft office Joe Shea.  Both men are key players in the episode “Apollo 1” that explored the tragedy that killed the three Apollo 1 astronauts during what should have been a routine test.

OK, that was more than a few great performers who I named!  But for every actor who I listed, there are three great contributors to the tapestry of From the Earth to the Moon who I left out.  I haven’t even mentioned Tom Hanks himself, who introduces each episode (always ending his monologue with the phrase “From the Earth to the Moon” — I always find it a lot of fun to say it with Mr. Hanks when he does!) and also plays a small role in the final episode.

The series does have the occasional problem.  Episode 8, “We Interrupt This Program,” which covers the events of the Apollo 13 mission, is certainly the series’ weakest link.  In an understandable attempt not to cover the same ground of the successful feature film Apollo 13, the creators of the show tried to give that episode a different focus.  That makes sense, but what they decided to do instead just doesn’t work.  The episode all but ignores the events of the Apollo 13 mission, choosing instead to focus on Lane Smitt’s fictionalized newsman Emmett Seaborn, who is being supplanted in his role by a younger, brasher reporter (played by Jay Mohr).  I admire the attempt to make a statement about the changing state of network news, but Emmett’s totally fictionalized drama just seems silly when considered against all of the REAL dramatic events of the Apollo 13 mission and the entire rest of the series.  The episode feels like a waste of time.

Luckily, that’s pretty much the only episode that doesn’t work — and most of the episodes don’t simply work, they work like gangbusters.  There are several hours of the series, such as the fascinating “Spider” and the dramatic, tragic “Apollo 1” (both of which I’ve mentioned above), which I’d rank among some of the finest hours of television I’ve ever seen.

From The Earth to the Moon is an intelligent and, from what I can tell, very well-researched and historically accurate piece of work.  It assumes that its viewers are attentive and intelligent.  The series is able to make all of the scientific and historical information easily understandable and digestible to the audience, without having to dumb things down too dramatically.  This is an important chronicle of one of the most amazing of mankind’s achievements, yet the series never turns into a dry history lesson.  From the Earth to the Moon pulses with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor.  It’s a beautiful way to honor the extraordinary efforts of the vast array of men and women who worked tirelessly for years on end — and some of whom who gave their very lives — towards the effort to land a human being on the moon, and bring him home again safely to the Earth.

One hopes that, someday, we will dare to try this again.

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