HBO // 1995 // 639 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // October 10th, 2005
"I think you should stop this witch hunt and let us go to the moon." -- Frank Borman (David Andrews)
HBO re-releases one of its flagship miniseries, now with shiny new packaging and an anamorphic transfer. Is it worth paying through the nose once again for this slick, entertaining, and often moving epic about humanity's greatest odyssey?
The space race was designed as yet another battle in the Cold War. It bears all the markings. Like all the great battlegrounds of the Cold War -- Korea, Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam -- the moon was foreign terrain. Yet both superpowers thought of it as another territory to compete over in a global game of go, each nation hoping that conquering that small space through its proxies would bring it closer to claiming the entire board. The proxy, in this case, was science. The first episode of Tom Hanks's marvelous 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon makes this point up front: Getting to the moon was not about the future; it was about showing up the Russians. As presidential science advisor Jerome Weisner (Al Franken) tells his fellow doughy white men, "Politics aside, there's no reason to put a man on the moon."
And, honestly, there really wasn't. I will not pretend that the space race was meant to be a glorious celebration of human achievement. Governments do not think that way. Patriotic fervor is a means to an end. But in spite of itself, the space race became something more than a propaganda campaign against the Soviets. It put the Cold War in perspective. It put the human race in perspective. It validated the Enlightenment notion of human achievement, the striving for perfection, in a way that has never been equaled, while at the same time it brought home, as nothing else ever has, the smallness of our place in the universe.
To give you a sense of how large this perceptual shift has been for Americans, consider that for a generation after the Apollo Program, the entire space race was pretty much summed up in the popular imagination by the single image of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, uttering his famous "one small step" line. Older folks vaguely remembered Sputnik or John Glenn, but Armstrong was pretty much the whole of it. And Armstrong himself was an enigma, a quiet sort who never gave interviews and seemed ready-made as more symbol than man. What happened before? What happened after? Nobody seemed to know, except to say that they really thought astronauts were cool and everyone wanted to be one.
I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid too. I grew up with Apollo. My parents tell me that I watched that iconic Neil Armstrong scene, but I was two years old, so you can understand if my memory does not back me up on that. We lived only a few hours from the Kennedy Space Center, and I remember cherishing a little plastic astronaut toy, his arched hand capable of grabbing onto a couple of pieces of plastic gear. I didn't know what the gadgets were supposed to do, but I was convinced that they were vital equipment.
Tom Hanks is about a decade older than I am, and apparently he grew up wanting to be an astronaut too. He obviously has a lot more Hollywood clout than I do, as well as the ears of Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. From the Earth to the Moon celebrates the Apollo Program with the reverence of a temple ceremony for its Hellenic namesake. But more than simply a stiff costume drama in space suits, the miniseries is smart in both its telling and its look.
Over the course of a dozen installments, Hanks and company walk us through the glory days of the space race from JFK's trailblazing speech, in which he announced that America was going to trump Sputnik by going to the moon by the end of the decade, to the final steps of Apollo 17. Because this is in part a high-profile follow-up to Imagine's popular Apollo 13, the production values are top-notch. More important, Hanks made a clever choice in bringing in a host of talented writers and directors to give each episode its own flavor.
Rather than summarize each episode -- DVD Verdict's own Sean Fitzgibbons covered that in his review of the earlier boxed set release of the series -- I want to make some general comments about structure and tone. Hanks directs the first episode himself, covering the Mercury and Gemini years, with the dry calm of a Ken Burns documentary (including the obligatory intertitles). The personalities rush by without giving us much time to stop and learn each future space hero, but then The Right Stuff already went there. Michael Kamen's score tends to overplay the emotional beats, making sure we know when we are required to cheer or tear up on cue. Compare this to some of the more subdued scores (by Mark Isham or Brad Fiedel, for example) on other episodes.
The series gets its real sense of personality with its sophomore installment, which turns the tragic Apollo 1 catastrophe (in which three astronauts died during a routine test on the pad) into a courtroom thriller. The human cost of the space race comes to the fore here -- and this will remain a key theme throughout the series, including a witty later episode (directed by Sally Field) focused on the emotional trials of the wives of the Apollo astronauts. Such an indirect approach to telling each story -- that is, to find a compelling side story through which to access these historic moments -- is a strategy that From the Earth to the Moon employs almost across the board. The tale of Apollo 7 is seen through the lens of a (fictional) documentary film crew and wiseguy rocket jock Wally Schirra (Mark Harmon). Dave Foley as Al Bean adds some levity to the story of Apollo 12, "history's greatest anticlimax." Apollo 10 is barely even glimpsed in an episode that focuses on the nerdy designers of the lunar landing module.
Some stories are more intense. Returning to the tale of Apollo 13, the producers use the near-disastrous mission as a Macguffin to work through a story (fronted by Lane Smith as a Cronkite-like television anchor) about journalistic ethics and the role of American media in the 1960s. An entire episode draws parallels between the turmoil of 1968 -- the debacle of Vietnam, the failure of LBJ's Great Society and the triumph of Nixon, the falls of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy -- and the struggles of Apollo 8 and its pragmatic hero Frank Borman (David Andrews). Even the story of the legendary Apollo 11 mission is told indirectly, through news broadcasts. This is probably just as well: Even given the show's efforts to humanize the astronauts, taciturn Neil Armstrong has always been pretty much a cipher to history...
Still, even the livelier characters, like Wally Schirra or Alan Shephard (Ted Levine), who thought his 15 minutes (literally, since that was all he spent in space as America's first astronaut) of fame were up until he got to walk on the moon with Apollo 15, are treated in relatively laudatory fashion. Everyone is clean-cut and well-meaning. All these American males check their egos at the door and work for the good of history. Even Senator Walter Mondale (John Slattery), who tries to shut down NASA after Apollo 1, only wants to divert the money from the space race into noble causes like fixing poverty and ending Vietnam. Was he wrong?
If you ask the producers of From Earth to the Moon, the answer is decidedly yes. I expect pretty much anybody who watches this inspiring miniseries will likely agree, at least while they are absorbed in the pride-boosting heroics of these rocket jockeys. You might step back later and wonder what it was all worth, but for these 12 hours of your time, there will be no doubt.
Of course, this assumes that you are willing to shell out a hundred bucks for HBO's double-dip of From the Earth to the Moon. The previous version was full frame. (Indeed, this was Sean Fitzgibbons's main bone of contention back in 1999.) The new version, listed at the same price as the old one, is in anamorphic widescreen and comes backed with a new DTS soundtrack. HBO spreads the series over more discs to take advantage of the higher bitrate. The upgraded video and audio are wonderful -- but at this point I think we should expect no less. In fact, the image is so crisp that it makes the CG space shots look a bit unreal, perhaps too sharp, especially in motion. But that is a product of the time: Computer effects nowadays are often "dirtied up" intentionally to make them look more like real objects captured on film.
The extras from the original set are mostly intact, with a polished HBO "First Look"–style featurette on the making of the series, a short special effects overview, some trailers (half the number from the old set), and a few text pieces (some of which had been hidden as DVD-ROM features on the old set). A couple of small extras (some 3-D models and the like) have apparently been dropped. I am unsure why HBO would actually remove supplements from a new set, especially since these are all located on a separate disc, which must have plenty of spare room on it.
If you already own a copy, HBO, notorious for overcharging, has given you little incentive to upgrade, unless the thought of widescreen and DTS makes your wallet fly out of your pants on cue. A hundred bucks is a lot to charge for a boxed set these days, even of a series this good. And if you already spent it once, you may not want to spend it again. But if you have not picked up this set yet, From the Earth to the Moon is both inspired history and great storytelling. I cannot imagine a child watching this and -- if not actually being inspired to become an astronaut -- not at least gaining a better appreciation for science, history, and America itself. The space race may have started out as a political maneuver, but it became a testament to human ingenuity.
Did we have to go to the moon? The truth is that we would have gotten there somehow, even if not as part of a government sponsored media blitz. That is what we ultimately only came to realize in retrospect. What going to the moon really taught us was that we, being what we are, had to go to the moon. As the doomed Gus Grissom (Mark Rolston) says, "Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves, because in the final analysis, only Man can evaluate the Moon in terms understandable to other men."
Although the Apollo Program -- and this boxed set -- cost an awful lot of money, this court releases these brave astronauts, HBO, and Imagine Entertainment for a job well done.
Review content copyright © 2005 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 639 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Behind-the-Scenes Featurette
* Special Effects Featurette
* Television Trailers
* 1961 John F. Kennedy Speech
* Space Race Timeline
* "Out of this Solar System"
* History of the Moon
* Famous Astronomers
* NASA's 47th Anniversary