Discovery Channel spared no expense in capturing the efforts to retrieve Liberty Bell 7, the only manned spacecraft never to be recovered by NASA. Although the documentary accurately captures the challenges and excitement of such a harrowing expedition, director Peter Schnall and writer Don Campbell also deliver a well-rounded account of the space program, effectively illustrating the triumphs of man amid the failures of technology.
Pic, narrated by the majestic James Earl Jones, also serves as a fitting tribute to a national hero maligned by history.
Virgil “Gus” Grissom, deemed the astronaut’s astronaut, is generally credited with developing the skills needed to fly in space. In July 1961, he made history as the second Mercury astronaut to take the “big ride.” But his 16-minute suborbital flight in Liberty Bell 7 ended in a bizarre accident that almost cost him his life. As Grissom splashed down in a choppy Atlantic and waited for the helicopter recovery team, a new, explosive safety hatch blew, nearly drowning Grissom and sinking his capsule to the ocean floor. The incident haunted Grissom’s career until his death in a launch pad fire in 1967, and became the focus of underwater salvage expert Curt Newport’s life for more than 14 years.
Discovery devotees may recognize Newport from his efforts on the channel’s expedition to the Titanic. This time out, he travels more than a mile deeper to locate Liberty Bell 7. The expedition is a technological challenge, with Newport and his crew searching an area the size of Manhattan for an object described as a little larger than a refrigerator.
The process is slow and painstaking, but director Schnall divides the action with interviews and archival footage that illuminates Grissom’s enormous contributions to the space program. These segments, which feature interviews with three of the living Mercury astronauts, including L. Gordon Cooper, M. Scott Carpenter and Walter M. Schirra, and NASA pad leader Guenter Wendt, are interesting enough to stand alone.
What we can’t see or comprehend is expressed in detailed graphics by Marc Chelnik and a colorful script by Campbell, which sometimes goes a bit overboard on imagery. For instance, it’s said that to reach Liberty Bell 7, you would have to stack 11 Empire State Buildings on top of each other. At another point, it’s 28 Washington Monuments — take your pick. But Campbell’s descriptive overkill is easily overlooked considering the amount of information to be digested. Although editor Rob Kuhns could have easily trimmed more from the final cut, the palpable enthusiasm for the project ultimately propels the docu.
When the group finds the Liberty Bell, it is a truly exciting piece of filmmaking. The images that emerge from the dark, watery underworld are extraordinary, with the faux Liberty Bell crack painted on the capsule by Grissom jumping out at the camera and the words “United States” beaming from the darkness.
What is missing from the piece is a sense of perspective as far as the time and money involved in such a search. Newport talks about constraints, although no deadlines are given.
Narrator Jones, although commanding, has become so ubiquitous that his booming baritone is a bit distracting. Michael Whalen’s music is stirring, but the docu belongs to Schnall, whose camera work, especially underwater, is unmatched.