Some interesting moments, but nothing terribly unique
Mark Janovec | Hudson, WI United States | 08/24/2009
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The history of the lunar landings has been covered by many documentaries over the years, so the story itself is one that has been well told. The Wonder of It All took a different approach in interviewing only the surviving moonwalkers (who were willing to participate), giving us their perspective on the program. While this gives you more depth into the thoughts of a very select group of astronauts, it doesn't tell you much of anything about the actual history of the Apollo program. A space fanatic will understand all of the details surrounding the stories already (and will have already heard many of the stories contained within...either from other documentaries or from reading the astronaut biographies). As a space fanatic, I don't necessarily mind not having bits of the story re-told to me. The average viewer, however, may not have the luxury of knowing the rest of the story beforehand.
Also, the film itself is largely just shot-after-shot of the astronauts being interviewed. The interviews are grouped together into categories, meant to discuss certain aspects of their lives and their involvement in the program. In that way, it feels somewhat clinical and the film itself is very segmented. The editing also feels somewhat haphazard in spots, which only adds to the segmented feel.
Another film that takes a fairly similar approach, but succeeds to a much larger degree is In the Shadow of the Moon. That film integrates astronaut interviews with the historic footage much more cleanly, letting the astronauts tell the story with a much more natural flow. It's also a visual feast that will excite even the average viewer. Additionally, the producers were willing to use astronauts other than moonwalkers to help tell the story...such as Michael Collins and Jim Lovell. Their inclusions in the film were extremely valuable. In fact, Collins basically stole the show with his great story telling style. And while space fanatics will want both films...because each had details the other is lacking...the film that will have greater appeal to most viewers is In the Shadow of the Moon."
A Unique Gem You Can't MIss
Z. Shubb | Los Angeles, CA | 10/12/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Wonder of It All is one of those smaller movies that the studio system doesn't know what to do with, so they just ignore it, and in doing so, deprive the public of the kind of film they would undoubtedly enjoy and savor. The footage is impressive, but more interesting is how the filmmakers have chosen to look at things from the perspective of the moonwalkers as humans, not as the professional heroes we have all been trained to see them as. These men are people first, with real emotions and feelings (though, it might be questions in John Young's segments :-)).
The Wonder of it All is not afraid to ask what it is like to be a man and do these things, rather than what did the training tell you it was like. This is a truly human and emotional film (and I am not even a space buff) that resonates on many levels."
Quintessential American Heroes
Ronald A. Wells | University of California, Berkeley, retired | 10/13/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"After 40 years, America's renewed steps towards a deeper human penetration into space with settlements on the Moon and later expeditions to Mars have been part of a vision which NASA has been following by Presidential mandate since 2005. The Constellation Program -- the name given to NASA's effort to put humans back on the Moon, and to provide for heavy launch vehicles and equipment for that and for expeditions to Mars -- has progressed remarkably well in only four years. The Ares I launch vehicle's 1st-stage rocket engine has been successfully tested; the Ares I-X experimental rocket, a precursor to the much larger Ares V Moon/Mars heavy-lift vehicle, is stacked in the Vertical Assembly Building awaiting its launch at the end of October; and development of the Orion crew vehicle, the replacement for the Space Shuttle, and the conveyor of crews to the Moon and Mars, is well under way, as is Altair, the lunar lander. The sheer magnitude of the workforce NASA has contracted for this program is both a strong echo of the heady days of Apollo and a reminder of the tens of thousands of people who labor with motivation and pride in their work. Like Apollo, Constellation has its share of detractors -- naysayers who have forgotten President Kennedy's prophetic words spoken at the outset of Apollo:
"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win ..." -- John F. Kennedy (Rice University, September 12, 1962).
Although President Obama has not made up his mind to continue the Constellation Program at increased funding levels -- funding which will employ hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled people and serve to develop new technologies which will strengthen America's economic future and global leadership -- his administration seems to be keen on discontinuing the investment in our future.
The growing public interest in space received a huge boost a decade ago with the landing of a small robot vehicle on Mars, and from increasingly sophisticated Mars orbital mapping spacecraft launched by NASA and later by ESA. An even greater achievement captured the public imagination when NASA landed two golf-cart sized rovers on opposite sides of Mars in January 2004. The plucky rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, have sent back thousands of spectacular images of their treks across the Martian surface -- analyzing rocks, climbing hills and peering into craters along the way. They are still transmitting pictures and data today. The success of the new Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), producing very high resolution photographs of the lunar surface, continue to astound our senses, even showing us the launch platforms (the Lunar Module descent stages) left behind by the Apollo astronauts, as well as their footprint trails and the experimental packages they deployed at each landing site. This public awareness has penetrated into the halls of Congress with both Senate and House subcommittees questioning the conclusions of the Augustine Commission impaneled by President Obama to assess the costs of human spaceflight in NASA's future -- especially as they regard the continuation of Constellation. The definitive discovery of water ice at the Moon's South Pole (a recent contribution by an Indian lunar orbiter, as well as observations from LRO) heightens the desire by many space proponents to establish a permanent settlement there. This interest is not limited to the United States. Indeed, if Americans do not return to the Moon to explore and employ its resources for the benefit of humankind, it seems clear that someone else will ... for their own benefit.
The current flurry of support for and criticism of NASA seems incessant. Bloggers disdain the very thought of spending money to send humans back to the Moon (suggesting the funds would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth), while others speak of colonizing the Moon and Mars. Some scientists and advocates insist that we should proceed directly to Mars, while others argue that the Moon is a necessary first step before we can go on to the Red Planet. There are even those scientists who say that we should not be sending humans into space at all. They maintain that robots can do the job for a fraction of the cost and with less risk.
A remarkable new film by Jeff Roth and Paul Basta now enters this public furor, reminding us of an almost forgotten group of American heroes. They are the Apollo astronauts who traveled to the Moon -- a scant dozen of whom walked on its surface 40 years ago for periods ranging from a few hours to three days. Forty years! More time has elapsed since the last human footprint was made on the lunar surface than the period between the first successful flight of the pioneering V-2 rocket in 1942, and Neil Armstrong's first step onto the Moon in 1969!
Jeff Roth's "The Wonder of it All" (thewonderofitallfilm dot com) interweaves commentary from seven of the nine surviving Moonwalkers; but the editing has been done so skillfully that instead of seven individuals talking, it seems more like one -- each of them often continuing a sentence that the other started. The participants are: Buzz Aldrin, Al Bean, Gene Cernan, Charlie Duke, Ed Mitchell, Jack Schmitt, and John Young. Neil Armstrong apparently would have preferred more control over the interview format and was thus hesitant to contribute. After protracted discussions, Dave Scott declined to be included. Nevertheless, the relaxed manner in which all the interviews were conducted allowed the seven participants to speak more candidly on personal and philosophical matters than we have had the opportunity to hear before. The coherent editing makes for a seamless whole (including a well-balanced music and sound track), holding the viewer spellbound throughout. Even the astronauts were impressed with the results. Charlie Duke said that he was very moved by the film. It is easy to see why.
The astronauts speak to us about private matters related to growing up, their education, and their military training (or in the case of Jack Schmitt, his scientific study and field training). Their accounts are illustrated with personal photos. They also talk about how they dealt with world fame after their lunar missions were accomplished, and how they look at the entire experience today. The astronauts attempt to answer the age-old question: "What was it like to walk on the Moon?" The film, however, is all too brief -- lasting just 82 minutes. Paul Basta, the project's cinematographer and one of its producers, recorded 14 hours of high definition interviews. Thus, one would hope that at some point a boxed 'super edition' of seven DVDs would be produced (a DVD for each of the astronauts) containing more complete biographies and archival flashbacks. According to Paul, they do have such a project in mind, as well as archiving the complete, unedited digital recordings for later historical research (possibly at a NASA center). More of the Al Bean interview is available from the "Wonder" website on a separate DVD as a human interest short subject. It describes Bean's current occupation as an artist and shows how he produces paintings about lunar and other space themes (alanbeangallery dot com). It is also available from Amazon (Amazon search: "Alan Bean Artist Astronaut"; also see my review there).
The present movie (Blu Ray & DVD) will give audiences an appreciation of seven quintessential American heroes -- individuals who came from a variety of almost ordinary backgrounds, participated successfully for a relatively short time in a common endeavor (but a highly technical one) and then moved on to a different way of life -- not dissimilar to the lives we lead ourselves. Indeed, the film shows that the astronauts' careers have been very much like a rope unraveled at both ends, in which we can see the individual strands come together on one side and then go their separate ways on the other. "Wonder" will certainly inspire young people of all ages with the feeling that any one of them could become an astronaut and fly to the Moon. The film thus gives parents the opportunity to encourage their school age children to take a deeper interest in science and engineering. In fact, the astronauts who will fly Orion to the Moon are perhaps in high school or college right now, while those who will go on to Mars are yet unborn (or maybe in kindergarten). Unless, of course, America loses its will to explore. Which, as "Wonder" reminds us, was deeply entrenched in a previous generation.
Most people don't have an opportunity to enjoy a personal one-on-one talk with any celebrity, let alone someone who has walked on the Moon. How many times have you sat speaking with a Moonwalker at an airport or in a coffee shop? People scurry past on their mundane dash to some other place, unaware that the fellow in the next seat has traveled to another world. Or how many times have you ridden in a taxi with a former astronaut when he says to you: "While we were on our way back from the Moon ..." You see the cab driver's eyebrows arch up; and you smile inwardly because you know he has just thought: "Oh-oh! Another couple of crackpots"! "Wonder" leaves the viewer with the same sense of awe that such an encounter would bring -- not only because you have been able to spend a few minutes alone with someone of such distinction, but also because he seems just like someone you know very well. That personal feeling is "Wonder's" principal strength.
Each astronaut broaches very personal subjects, and in some cases the displayed emotion is quite palpable. For example, Buzz Aldrin tells us very touchingly about his inheriting problems with alcohol from both parents -- and about his mother's tragic suicide the year before his Moon flight. He overcame those problems, which manifested themselves after his mission, by devoting himself to the future of spaceflight. As a result, he wants to be remembered as a "space futurist" rather than as an aviator.
Gene Cernan, on the one hand, very forcefully tells us that he can take himself back to Taurus-Littrow in an instant -- remembering the smallest detail, such as the tracks that were left by the Lunar Rover, or the place where he traced out his daughter's initials on the surface, or the spot where he parked the Rover for the last time. On the other hand, with short pauses and on the verge of tears, he softly describes his final steps on the Moon -- just before climbing up the ladder and back into the Lunar Module. He knew that no one would be back there for a long time (a very long time, as it turned out). Near the film's conclusion, Cernan describes his experience as overpowering, and his recollections leave vestiges of that power written all over his face as he gazes wistfully and silently at the Apollo 17 Command Module on display beside him. Any actor would have difficulties in convincingly portraying the raw emotions in those two scenes. In a sense, the former captures the entire Apollo period: 450,000 people from all walks of life working together -- sacrificing families and sometimes themselves -- to put twelve men on the surface of the Moon. In one last step off the lunar surface, it was all over ... all that work and all those sacrifices. With one last step, the program ended! Cernan's last step was as heart-rending as Armstrong's first step was exciting! No wonder Gene said that he wished he could freeze time at that instant! What a dénouement!
On the question of religion, each man had his own view. Aldrin actually took a specially prepared communion "kit" with him, and when they landed safely, he administered it to himself (although listeners on Earth only heard him ask that each one should give thanks for the safe landing in their own special way). Cernan felt that it was more of a spiritual than a religious experience. His meaning here was that he had obtained a feeling closer to God more directly than any man-made religion can bring, evidenced by his statement that when he looked back to Earth from the lunar surface it was like sitting on God's front porch looking home. Charlie Duke noted that during the Apollo program he put his career and work ahead of God; but that from this vantage point in time he wanted to be remembered as a man who knew God, who loved God, and who walked humbly before God. Al Bean summed it up by noting that the trip was a reinforcer -- those who were religious before going to the Moon were more so afterwards; those who were agnostic were more agnostic afterwards; and those who were atheistic, were more so after returning. Bean additionally explained that for him his trip to the Moon also raised his appreciation for life on Earth and has made him more satisfied with the life he has since led.
This film is one of inspiration, of motivation, of the realization that what we did as a Nation, we can do again by pulling together. Jack Schmitt framed that point by noting that the answer to the question: "If we can go to the Moon, why can't we ___________ (fill in the blank)?" is that you can ... IF you have the right technology base and young men and women who are motivated enough to accomplish it. Gene Cernan also echoed the same sentiment when he said that the legacy of Apollo is that nothing is impossible. But John Young, the quietest and least excitable of the group, was also the most direct when he simply stated that after Apollo he had expected America to build a permanent lunar base. He added that the world would be better off today if we had done so. It is, perhaps, refreshing to note that Young not only walked on the Moon, but also played a role in the development of the Space Shuttle. Indeed, he served as commander of STS-1, the first Shuttle orbital flight in April 1981. Still contributing to his earlier expectation in retirement, he is an advisor for the development of Orion, which will (hopefully) take us back to the Moon and on to Mars.
The team of Jeff Roth Productions has passionately produced a finely-crafted gem which gives us a true feeling of what these men, these Moonwalkers, are really like as human beings. More than that, this award-winning film imparts the feeling that few of us would hesitate to trade places with these pioneers so that we, too, could experience ... the wonder of it all!
[Portions of this review appeared in "The Space Review" for November 12, 2007. In the interim, the film has garnered a number of awards at film festivals and has been screened at various museums and events around the world. The released disks are accompanied with behind-the-scenes production, other astronaut and astronaut wives interviews.] "
Exploring Inner Space
Michael Burton | Columbus, OH USA | 10/11/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is a great companion piece to David Sington's film In the Shadow of the Moon.
Sington's film dealt more with the Apollo program and the missions themselves. This film focuses on the men who actually walked on the moon. During Apollo, we tended to think of the astronauts as identical and interchangeable -- maybe it was the spacesuits that hid their faces; maybe it was the terse technical jargon they spoke -- but here they appear as very different human beings, united by high intelligence and fierce determination. The film examines how, as distinct individuals, they shaped our exploration of the moon, and were shaped by it.
In a very subtle way that might not even have been recognized during the actual interviews, this film turns into an exploration of inner space. Instead of science lessons from Apollo, these are life lessons from Apollo.
Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, who left NASA to become an artist, says: "Seems strange to me sometimes that I can care as much about painting a good painting as I did about flying an airplane really well or making an entry in a spaceship. And I think maybe that's a nice thing for people, because whatever dreams any of us have, they're just as strong as the president's dream. They're just as wonderful as anybody else in the whole world, but WE are charged with making OUR dreams come true; they're not. I'd like to be remembered as a guy that did his duty. I tried to do it in the Navy, tried to do it at NASA, and then when I left NASA, I'm trying to do it right now. I'm trying to preserve what I think is worthy of ME to do."
The movie doesn't really cry out for the hi-def treatment of Blu-ray, but it looks good. The supplementary material is a mixed bag. I particularly enjoyed a presentation done by John Young. A behind-the-scenes tour at Kennedy Space Center isn't particularly well done, but the subject matter is so compelling it's worth watching. There are three audio commentary tracks: one with Apollo 16 astronauts John Young and Charlie Duke, and director Jeffrey Roth; another with Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell and producer Paul Basta, and a third with Roth and Basta. Unfortunately, the two astronaut commentaries slip out of sync with the picture, so you may hear them talking about a scene that appeared a minute before, or a shot that hasn't yet appeared. Frustrating, but worthwhile.
Wonder: what a gift to us all!
Lois Lane | Florida | 09/26/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Wonder: a gift to all of us who've looked up at the moon and pondered what it's like to be there. For a self-described "space fanatic," reviewer Janovec obviously doesn't get what The Wonder of It All offers for the first time for the rest of us -- a chance to learn and experience these men through their insightful and intimate interviews. This movie's gift to us is not telling us how we got to the moon, but who took us there and what it did to THEIR lives, for the rest of their lives. To me that's the story in which Wonder excelled in the way the filmmakers blend the moonwalkers first-hand stories with archived NASA shots of their incredible missions to the moon and back and the work and FUN they had while on the lunar surface.
When I first saw this film, I never imagined it was produced to educate me on the entire Apollo program or all the astronauts who participated for that matter. The very thing that sets Wonder apart from other Apollo films are these candid and personal stories drawn out of each astronaut during these one-on-one interviews. And by the way, these insightful interviews were recorded before In the Shadow of the Moon was produced, which could make one speculate how they got the idea for Shadow in the first place.
Dividing Wonder into nine distinct categories was an extremely artful way to progress the story through a long period of the astronaut history while covering a vast amount of material. Doing so also helps viewers keep their focus on the unique stories unfolding before them. But most important, it illustrates not only common experiences shared by these incredible space explorers, but how they handled matters like spirituality and retirement from NASA based on their own unique situations. And how walking on the moon left them as different men but with an abiding bond only 12 humans have ever shared."