With the 25th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing looming next week , TBS’ gripping four-hour documentary “Moon Shot” tries to wrap up the entire Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs in one grand arch. Viewers get a sense of just how dangerous these missions really were, even as they were being served to the American people as precision-controlled thrill rides. And audiences also receive insights into what a diverse bunch of characters the astronauts were, as opposed to NASA’s squeaky-clean American hero images.
It’s a real-life edition of “The Right Stuff,” yet more sweeping and critical in detail, as producer-director Kirk Wolfinger uses lots of startling, never-seen color footage dating from the Eisenhower through the Ford administrations, as well as familiar clips and interviews with the surviving astronauts and their keepers at Mission Control.
As a peg to hang the tale upon, the whole Rushmore DeNooyer-supervised script is voiced from the viewpoint of the late Deke Slayton, one of the seven original Mercury astronauts.
As a result, the show revolves around Slayton — whose irregular heartbeat kept him off the launch pad until 1975 — and to a lesser extent, his pal Alan Shepard, whose Apollo 14 voyage to the moon in 1971 (not the more famous Apollo 11 landing) becomes the climax of the film. It’s not a bad framing device, since their astronaut careers are the only ones that span the entire era.
Alas, Slayton — who came from Wisconsin — is given a cornpone Wild West accent by narrator Barry Corbin and, accordingly, the script sometimes plunges to a level that would have been more appropriate for a Daniel Boone tale (sample line: “The Mercury guys welcomed them (the Gemini astronauts) with all the warmth of a pit bull on a short leash”).
Yet the narration offers some biting capsule portraits of the Mercury Seven — the preoccupied Scott Carpenter and flaky “Gordo” Cooper especially — and the writing improves and deepens noticeably in part 2.
Since this is 1994, the docu deals with reports of sexual hijinks wherever the early astronauts were, and fights between Mission Control and a testy Wally Schirra during the Apollo 7 flight. And straight-arrow John Glenn is caught delivering some of the more risque lines.
The most moving stretch of film illuminates the little-publicized early troubles of the Apollo program — the rushed construction work, ignorance of earlier lessons, and frayed tempers in the control room — leading in a straight ominous line to the deadly 1967 Apollo 1 fire. The musical scoring, mostly by Ed Van Fleet, is all over the map — sometimes inappropriately flippant but very effective when he uses mesmerizing electronic music during the lift-offs.
Although “Moon Shot” hinges on the race with the Russians (who are treated merely as reference points most of the way), it doesn’t stop after Apollo 11 — and there is plenty of drama in the flights afterward. Yet “Moon Shot” is candid enough to admit that a domestically ravaged America lost interest in space once the race to the moon had been won.
In all, this is a splendid achievement by TBS’ versatile production crew.